democracy

 

  • KYRGYZSTAN: ‘The citizens' choice in the referendum will be decisive for our future’

    Ulugbek AzimovCIVICUS and the International Partnership for Human Rights speak to Ulugbek Azimov, legal expert at the Legal Prosperity Foundation, about the protests that took place in Kyrgyzstan in October 2020 and subsequent political developments. The Legal Prosperity Foundation (previously the Youth Human Rights Group) is an independent civil society organisation that has worked to promote human rights and democratic principles in Kyrgyzstan since 1995. The organisation carries out educational programmes, conducts human rights monitoring, interacts with international human rights mechanisms and promotes respect for human rights in the context of legal reforms.

    Kyrgyzstan is often referred to as Central Asia’s only democracy. How close to truth is this depiction?

    It is true that in the early 1990s, that is, in the first years of independence, democracy sprouted and began developing in Kyrgyzstan. Compared to other countries in the region, Kyrgyzstan was characterised by a higher level of citizen participation, a more developed civil society and more favourable conditions for the functioning and participation of political parties in the political process. For this reason, Kyrgyzstan was called an ‘island of democracy’ in Central Asia.

    However, during the 30 years since independence, Kyrgyzstan has faced serious challenges. Attempts by former presidents to preserve and strengthen their hold on power by putting pressure on the opposition, persecuting independent media and journalists, restricting the freedom of expression, using public resources in their favour, bribing voters and falsifying the results of elections have resulted in major political upheavals on several occasions. In the past 15 years, the government has been overthrown three times during the so-called Tulip, April and October revolutions, in 2005, 2010 and 2020, respectively, with two former presidents being forced to flee the country, and the third forced to resign ahead of time.

    Each upheaval has, unfortunately, been followed by developments undermining previous democratic gains. It is therefore not surprising that Freedom House has consistently rated Kyrgyzstan as only ‘partially free’ in its annual Freedom in the World survey. Moreover, in the most recent survey published this year, Kyrgyzstan’s rating deteriorated to that of ‘not free’ because of the fall-out of the October 2020 parliamentary elections, which were marred by serious violations. Thus, Kyrgyzstan is now in the same category in which other Central Asian countries have been for many years. 

    Were pandemic-related restrictions imposed in the run-up to the 2020 elections?

    In response to the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in the spring of 2020, the Kyrgyzstani authorities adopted emergency measures and introduced a lockdown in the capital, Bishkek, and in several other regions of the country, which led to restrictions on the right to the freedom of movement and other, related rights. All public events, including rallies, were banned.

    Measures taken in the context of the pandemic also gave rise to concerns about restrictions on the freedom of expression and access to information. The authorities seriously tightened the screws on critical voices in response to widespread criticism of those in power, including then-President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, for their failure to fight the pandemic effectively. Law enforcement authorities tracked down inconvenient bloggers and social media commentators, visited them in their homes and held ‘prophylactic’ discussions with them. In some cases, social media users were detained for allegedly posting false information about the pandemic and forced to apologise publicly under threat of prosecution.

    The law on ‘manipulation of information’, which parliament passed in June 2020, is of particular concern. Although the initiators of the law claimed that it was solely intended to address the problem of fake online accounts, it was clear from the start that this was an attempt by the authorities to introduce internet censorship and close down objectionable sites on the eve of the elections. Following an avalanche of criticism from the media community and human rights defenders, then-President Jeenbekov declined to sign the law and returned it to parliament for revision in August 2020. Since then, the law has remained with parliament. 

    What triggered the post-election demonstrations in October 2020? Who protested, and why?

    The main reason for the October 2020 protests, which again led to a change in power, was people’s dissatisfaction with the official results of the parliamentary elections held on 4 October. 

    Out of the 16 parties running for seats in parliament, only five passed the seven per cent electoral threshold required to get into parliament. Although then-President Jeenbekov publicly stated that he did not support any party, the one that received most votes – Birimdik (Unity) – was associated with him since his brother and other people from the ruling elite were running on its ticket. The party that ended up second, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (Motherland Kyrgyzstan), was also viewed as pro-government and was associated with the family of former high-ranking customs service official Raiymbek Matraimov, who was implicated in a high-profile media investigation into corruption published in November 2019. Jeenbekov’s government ignored the findings of this investigation and failed to initiate a criminal case against Matraimov, despite public calls to this end.

    It was predictable that Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan would fare well in the elections given the use of public resources and reported vote-buying in favour of their candidates. These two parties, which took part in parliamentary elections for the first time, received almost half of the votes and therefore an absolute majority of the seats in parliament. The methods used by the two winning parties to secure control over parliament caused indignation among other political parties that participated in the elections, their voters and even apolitical people.

    The elections took place against the backdrop of growing discontent with the social and economic difficulties caused by the pandemic, as well as growing anti-government sentiments among the population.

    The ‘dirty’ elections, characterised by an unprecedented scale of violations, became a catalyst for subsequent events. Protests began immediately after the announcement of the preliminary results on the evening of election day, 4 October, and continued throughout the next day. Young people played a decisive role in them: most of those who took to the streets to protest and gathered in the central square of the capital were young people. Unfortunately, most of those who were injured, as well as the protester who died during the October events, were young people too.

    What was the government’s reaction to the protests?

    The authorities had the opportunity to take control of the situation and resolve it peacefully, but they did not take it. Only in the evening of 5 October did then-President Jeenbekov announce that he would meet with the leaders of the different parties that competed in the elections. He set up a meeting for the morning of 6 October, but this turned out to be too late, as in the night of 5 October the peaceful protests devolved into clashes between protesters and law enforcement officials in Bishkek, ending with the seizure of the White House (the seat of the president and parliament) and other public buildings by protesters. During the clashes, law enforcement authorities used rubber bullets, stun grenades and teargas against the protesters. As a result of the clashes, a 19-year-old young man was killed and more than 1,000 people needed medical attention, including protesters and law enforcement officials, with over 600 police officers injured. During the unrest, police cars, ambulances, surveillance cameras and other property were also damaged, to an estimated value of over 17 million Som (approx. US$200,000).

    Did the snap presidential elections held in January 2021 solve the problems raised by the protests?

    The main demand of the protesters was to cancel the results of the October 2020 parliamentary elections and hold new, fair elections. This demand was partly satisfied on 6 October 2020, when the Central Election Commission (CEC) declared the election results invalid. However, up to now, no date has been fixed for the new parliamentary elections. The CEC initially scheduled them for 20 December 2020 but parliament responded by promptly adopting a law that suspended the elections pending a revision of the constitution and extended the terms in office of the members of the outgoing parliament until 1 June 2021.

    In its assessment of this law, the Venice Commission – an advisory body of the Council of Europe, composed of independent constitutional law experts – concluded that during the current transitional period parliament should exercise limited functions and refrain from approving extraordinary measures, such as constitutional reforms. However, the outgoing parliament has continued its work as usual and approved the holding of a constitutional referendum in April 2021. Newly elected President Sadyr Japarov has suggested holding new parliamentary elections in the autumn of 2021, which would mean that members of the outgoing parliament would continue in their positions even after 1 June 2021.

    In accordance with other demands of the protesters, the country’s electoral legislation was amended in October 2020 to reduce the electoral threshold from seven to three percentage points for parties to gain representation in parliament and to reduce the electoral fee from 5 to 1 million Som (approx. US$12,000). These amendments were made to facilitate the participation of a larger number of parties, including newer ones, and to promote pluralism and competition.

    The protesters also expressed resentment about the inadequate measures taken to fight corruption. They demanded that the authorities bring to justice corrupt officials, particularly Matraimov, and return stolen property to the state. Speaking in front of the protesters before he became president, Japarov promised that Matraimov would be arrested and punished.

    To be fair, Japarov kept his word. After Japarov rose to power in October 2020, Matraimov was arrested in connection with an investigation into corruption schemes within the customs service, pleaded guilty and agreed to compensate the damage by paying back more than 2 billion Som (approx. US$24 million). A local court subsequently convicted him, but handed him a mitigated sentence in the form of a fine of 260,000 Som (approx. US$3,000) and lifted freezing orders on his property, since he had cooperated with the investigation. This extremely lenient sentence caused public outrage. On 18 February 2021, Matraimov was arrested again on new charges of money laundering, but after a few days he was transferred from the pre-trial detention facility where he was being held to a private clinic to undergo treatment for health problems. After that, many labelled the anti-corruption measures of the current authorities as ‘populist’.

    In January 2021 Kyrgyz citizens also voted in a constitutional referendum. What were its results, and what consequences will they have for the quality of democracy?

    According to the results of the referendum, which took place on the same day as the presidential election in January 2021, 84 per cent of voters supported a transition from a parliamentary to a presidential system of government.

    Based on comparative experience, many lawyers and civil society activists do not view this change as negative per se, provided that a well-functioning system of checks and balances is put in place. However, they are seriously concerned that the authorities are attempting to push through the transition at an unjustifiably quick pace using questionable approaches and methods that do not correspond to generally accepted principles and established legal rules and procedures.

    The first draft constitution providing for a presidential system of governance, put forward in November 2020, was dubbed a ‘khanstitution’ in reference to the historic autocratic rulers of Central Asia. Critics accused Japarov, who has advocated for this change since taking office in October 2020, of trying to usurp power.

    The draft constitution granted the president practically unlimited powers, while reducing the status and powers of parliament to a minimum, thereby jeopardising checks and balances and creating the risk of presidential abuse of power. It also provided for a complicated impeachment procedure that would be impossible to implement in practice. Moreover, while it did not mention the principle of the rule of law even once, the text repeatedly referred to moral values and principles. Many provisions of the current constitution that guarantee human rights and freedoms were excluded.

    Because of harsh criticism, the authorities were forced to abandon their initial plans to submit the draft constitution to referendum on the same day as the presidential election in January 2021 and agreed to organise a broader discussion. To this end, a so-called constitutional conference was convened and its members worked for two and a half months, in spite of facing accusations that their activities were illegitimate. At the beginning of February 2021, the constitutional conference submitted its suggestions to parliament.

    It should be acknowledged that as a result of the discussion and proposals submitted by the constitutional conference, parts of the draft constitution were improved. For example, the reference to the principle of the rule of law was restored, and significant amendments were made to the sections on human rights and freedoms, including with respect to protecting the freedom of expression, the role of independent media and the right to access information. But it remained practically unchanged with respect to the provisions that set out unlimited powers for the president.

    In March 2021, parliament adopted a law on holding a referendum on the revised draft constitution, setting the date for 11 April 2021. This sparked a new wave of indignation among politicians, lawyers and civil society activists, who pointed out that this was against the established procedure for constitutional change and warned again that the concentration of power in the hands of the president might result in authoritarian rule. Their concerns were echoed in a joint opinion of the Venice Commission and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, issued in March 2021 at the request of the Ombudsman of Kyrgyzstan.

    The draft constitution has two other problematic provisions. One allows for restrictions to be imposed on any events that contradict ‘moral and ethical values’ or ‘the public consciousness of the people of the Kyrgyz Republic’. These concepts are not defined or regulated, so they might be interpreted differently in different cases, creating the risk of overly broad and subjective interpretation and arbitrary application. This, in turn, might lead to excessive restrictions on human rights and freedoms, including the rights to the freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression.

    The other provision requires political parties, trade unions and other public associations to ensure the transparency of their financial and economic activities. Against the background of recent attempts to step up control over civil society organisations (CSOs), there are concerns that it might be used to put pressure on them. On the same day that parliament voted in favour of holding a referendum on the draft constitution, some legislators accused CSOs of allegedly undermining ‘traditional values’ and posing a threat to the state. 

    Civil society activists continue to call on the current parliament, which in their eyes has lost its legitimacy, to dissolve and on the president to call new elections promptly. Activists are holding an ongoing rally to this end and, if their demands are not met, they plan to turn to the courts on the grounds of the usurpation of power.

    The president, however, has rejected all concerns voiced about the constitutional reform. He has assured that Kyrgyzstan will remain a democratic country, that the freedom of expression and the personal safety of journalists will be respected, and that there will be no further political persecution. 

    The citizens of Kyrgyzstan must make their choice. The upcoming referendum on the current draft constitution may become another turning point in the history of Kyrgyzstan, and the choice made by citizens will be decisive for the future development towards stability and prosperity.

    Civic space in Kyrgyzstan is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Legal Prosperity Foundation through itsFacebook page and followlpf_kg on Instagram.

     

  • LEBANON: ‘The political youth movement was a major pillar of the opposition to the ruling class’

    MarwanIssaCIVICUS speaks about the recent general election in Lebanon with Marwan Issa, research assistant with the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut.

    The Asfari Institute seeks to bridge academia and civil society activism. It does so through knowledge production, convenings and the creation of safe spaces for learning, dialogue and exchange. Located at the heart of the American University in Beirut, it functions as a regional hub for civil society working for diversity, inclusion, equality, accountability and sustainability.

    What was the political and economic context of Lebanon’s 15 May general election?

    The election was held while Lebanon faced one of its worst economic crises in recent history. People were experiencing severe hardship due to lack of essential items, including medicines. On election day, the currency exchange rate skyrocketed, with the US dollar going from 1,515 to around 30,000 Lebanese pounds. Not surprisingly, the majority held deep-seated anger against traditional ruling parties. This led many voters, and especially those in the diaspora, to elect new independent opposition parties and candidates.

    However, the intensity of the crisis also led many people to despair and crippled their desire or motivation for action. As a result, the revolutionary feelings stirred by the protests of 17 October 2019 largely died down, and many people felt their vote would not make any difference, which explains the low turnout.

    But this did not mean that people were not searching for alternatives: in fact, a solution-focused, rational debate has also emerged that is clearly different from the tribal methods of traditional political parties, which instrumentalise sectarianism, clientelism and fearmongering. New opposition groups have developed that criticise the traditional division between those who blame all the country’s problems on the presence of Hezbollah as an armed militia, and those who believe the presence of resistance against a potential threat from Israel is necessary. Both are viewed as serving the interests of the current political elite.

    In the face of this, the new opposition offers an alternative discourse focused on both sovereignty and economic justice. This debate about alternative economic and social solutions is very promising for the years ahead.

    How did youth-led groups engage with the election process?

    There are plenty of youth-led political groups in Lebanon, but the main one is Mada, the Network of Secular Clubs. The first secular clubs were formed in universities as an alternative to the domination of ruling class parties on campus and started to take part in university student council elections. Over the past few years, these secular clubs won more than two-thirds of the seats in student council elections, breaking the hegemony of traditional political parties. As a result, they have paved the way for a new type of discourse on and outside campuses. Now the Network has 21 clubs throughout the country – not just in universities but also in unions and regions – and continues to have a clear youth-led political discourse.

    In preparation for the election, Mada engaged in negotiations with other groups to form coalitions. In Beirut, Mada members were active in the creation of Beirut Tuqawem (Beirut Resists), a grassroots participatory campaign that included individuals and groups from various progressive circles. Those volunteering in these campaigns were mostly university students working alongside other Mada members who were a bit older – but still young, around 25 on average.

    Mada members were also active in launching campaigns in other parts of Lebanon, including al Janoub Youwajeh (The South Confronts), Jil al Teghyir (The Generation of Change), and the 17 October Coalition.

    So-called apolitical young people – young people not active in any political group – also mostly leaned towards voting for new independent opposition groups. They also encouraged those around them to do the same, which boosted the opposition movement. Had the voting age been 18 instead of 21, we could confidently say that the elections would have brought many more new faces to parliament.

    How free and fair was the election?

    The electoral process was plagued with violations that made the competition unfair. For instance, although there are strict caps on campaign spending, ruling class candidates violated the law and poured millions of dollars into their campaigns. This huge financial advantage allowed them to reach vast audiences, while opposition campaigns had much more limited resources.

    Bribery and clientelism were also rampant. In addition, smear campaigns and direct threats on opposition candidates were widely noticed. One of them, Ali Khalife, received direct threats following a smear campaign by pro-Hezbollah electronic armies. A few days before the election there were attacks by Tashnag party supporters on opposition groups in Metn and the beating of volunteers.

    On election day many violations were recorded, but they were highly dependent on the context. In the southern region, for example, violations included brawls, fights, and politically affiliated electoral assistants going inside voting booths alongside voters. In areas controlled by armed or powerful parties, such as Hezbollah and the Amal movement in the south, many people did not dare turn up to vote.

    How do you assess the election results?

    All the above combined, plus the fact that the ruling class also very carefully crafted the electoral law to suit its sectarian and partisan quota system, made for a tilted playing field. Under the circumstances, the results were promising and can be built upon.

    The election resulted in around 12 or 13 new opposition faces in parliament, plus a couple more who could be counted as part of the opposition but were in parliament already. The presence of 15 opposition, mostly new, legislators is great news. They have clear views regarding both the presence of an armed militia and the responsibility of banks and bank owners in the economic crisis. For instance, newly elected member of parliament Ibrahim Mneimneh, of Beirut Tuqawem, who got the most preferential votes among all new opposition candidates, has a progressive economic and social discourse and took a clear stand on issues related to security and arms.

    In contrast, candidates traditionally linked with the Syrian regime lost their seats, including Assaad Herdan in the south, Weeam Wahhab and Talal Erslan in Mount Lebanon, and Elie Ferzli in Bekaa. This was a huge victory against people who were puppets in the hands of the Syrian regime during the period in which Syria maintained a military presence in Lebanon, between the 1990s and 2005.

    Following the election, pro-change political forces must continue pushing for change in and outside parliament, supporting the newly elected members of parliament and holding them accountable for the implementation of their programme.

    What kind of international support does Lebanese civil society need?

    Youth-led groups have been at a significant financial disadvantage, and I believe they are the ones that need the most support. It only makes sense that the new generation be supported since waves of emigration keep rising as students and young people more generally lose hope in Lebanon. Financial support, however, should be conditional on the credibility of the opposition group receiving it; it must be directed towards groups with a proven commitment to democracy, social justice, and non-sectarian values.

    International organisations, embassies, and other entities could also express their support by including the perspectives of opposition groups in designing policies and humanitarian aid mechanisms because Lebanon’s ruling class has proven highly skilled at transforming aid into clientelism and perpetuating the cycle of violence and poverty for political gain.

    Civic space in Lebanon is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS monitor.
    Get in touch with the Asfari Institute through itswebsite and follow@AsfariInstitute on Twitter. 

     

  • LEBANON: ‘This election has brought to the forefront new voices speaking about rights’

    Lina Abou HabibCIVICUS speaks about the recent general elections in Lebanon with Lina Abou Habib, director of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut.

    The Asfari Institute seeks to bridge academia and civil society activism. It does so through knowledge production, convenings and the creation of safe spaces for learning, dialogue and exchange. Located at the heart of the American University in Beirut, it functions as a regional hub for civil society working for diversity, inclusion, equality, accountability and sustainability.

    What change resulted from the 15 May general election?

    Despite taking place in an extremely complicated, uncertain and turbulent political and economic context, the process resulted in the election of many new independent candidates coming from civil society and calling for change. These new voices have political agendas that are very different from those of traditional ruling parties: they call for a new, more accountable governance system and for women’s rights, among other issues. These agendas include road maps for overcoming the ongoing deep economic crisis. And most importantly, they focus on how to stop the political race to the bottom that’s been happening in Lebanon.

    Most of the independent candidates who were elected are linked to the 17 October protests, the uprisings that took place in 2019, when people clearly said that they had enough of the political elite that had become – and continues to be – outrageously corrupt. The 17 October Revolution was a unique moment because protesters had such diverse, inclusive and feminist voices – feminist demands became an integral part of the political demands of the revolution. For instance, sexual harassment became a political issue because the voices of the LGBTQI+ community and migrant women domestic workers were also represented. No demand was compromised or put aside.

    By that time, it became clear to us what system of governance we aspired to. It must be based on equality, inclusion, diversity and respect for human rights. The revolution also gained momentum because the same thing was happening in Chile and other countries where people were rising up. Hence, I do not exaggerate when I say that the feminist voices of the 17 October Revolution inspired political participation in the 2022 election.

    It is important to note, however, that some independent members of the new parliament do not share the agenda of the 17 October Revolution and have quite regressive rhetoric. For instance, newly elected member of parliament Cynthia Zarazir called for the death of Syrian refugees on social media. Having people like her in parliament represents a new challenge. Aside from that, I would say that this election has brought to the forefront new voices speaking about rights and pointing the way forward out of the current crisis.

    How did the feminist movement work collectively in preparation for the election?

    There was rallying behind feminist candidates such as Zoya Jureidini Rouhana, who pushes for an compulsory egalitarian family law, a top priority for Lebanon’s feminist movement. Rouhana is the founder of KAFA (‘enough’) Violence and Exploitation, a feminist civil society organisation that was behind several legal reforms in Lebanon. Moreover, it champions political discourse on gender-based violence. Her electoral campaign was in line with that. It is a rare moment when you have a feminist candidate running on a feminist agenda in a general election – and this was partly possible thanks to the voices that became heard in October 2019. The political movement took shape and gained more feminist voices during those uprisings.

    Feminists mobilising around the elections forced candidates to state their position on gender equality, including the rights of the queer community. In return, independent candidates who sided with gender equality were attacked by the regime and conservative forces. One way for government officials and supporters to disparage and attack somebody is to say they are going to endanger the family. This is very unfortunate, but at the same time, it is fantastic that this important conversation is taking place in the public sphere and these issues are being discussed as part of the overall social and political dialogue.

    In sum, the inclusive and intersectional feminist movement of Lebanon has succeeded in elevating feminist discourse to the public and political arena. But there is still a long way to go: the new parliament includes only two additional female members compared to the previous one, as only eight women were elected, out of 115 candidates nominated by traditional parties, opposition groups, and civil society. These results are still lacking in terms of reaching a critical mass to exercise feminist influence in parliament.

    What’s next for the civil society movement following the election?

    The real battle is just about to begin. The election showed that change is possible, but it is still not enough. The next step for us is to figure out how we will hold independent members of parliament accountable. They must be accountable because they won as a result of our collective movement.

    We will still be facing a corrupt and oppressive regime and serious issues such as illegal arms and a heavily militarised society, economic downfall, destroyed livelihoods, broken public institutions and irresponsible and unaccountable policymaking. As such, civil society in its diversity, and especially the intersectional feminist movement, should remain vigilant.

    The conversation we started must continue, and we need our international allies to help keep it going, and certainly not be complicit with the regime. We have a collective responsibility to monitor human rights violations, talk to feminist activists and help amplify the voices of Lebanon’s intersectional young feminists.

    Civic space in Lebanon is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS monitor.
    Get in touch with the Asfari Institute through itswebsite and follow@AsfariInstitute on Twitter.

     

  • MYANMAR: ‘If we fail to take appropriate action, the junta will commit more crimes’

    KyawWinCIVICUS speaks with Kyaw Win, founder and Executive Director of theBurma Human Rights Network (BHRN), about the situation in Myanmar one year after the coup. As theCIVICUS Monitor has documented, activists and journalists continue to be criminalised and killed. Political prisoners have been tortured and ill-treated and the junta continues to block aid and imposes restrictions on humanitarian workers. 

    BHRN works for human rights, minority rights and religious freedom in Myanmar. It has played a crucial role advocating for human rights and religious freedom with the international community and earned a reputation for providing credible and reliable analysis. It recently published reports oncrimes against humanity by the Myanmar military following the coup and on human rights violations and the situation inRohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. 

    What led you to found BHRN?

    I was born and brought up in a predominantly Muslim township in Yangon and lived there for 30 years. But in 2009 I had to leave the country and stayed at the Thailand-Myanmar border, temporarily leaving my family. Because I was not able to go back, I eventually moved to the UK and after one-and-a-half years I was reunited with my family.

    In 2012, when violence against Muslims erupted in Myanmar, I felt I needed to take action and founded BHRN, which was registered in the UK in 2015. Despite progress in the transition to democracy, we decided to keep BHRN underground. This surprised many, but we felt the situation could reverse easily. Unfortunately, this came true with the February 2021 military coup.

    BHRN tracks hate speech both online and offline. We believe hate speech is very dangerous and monitoring it helps us predict impending violence. As we are underground, we are able to collect data on the ground even if it’s very risky. We work in Myanmar and have staff there, including in Rakhine State, as well as in Bangladesh and Thailand. We see the need to expand because as a result of the coup there are restrictions on movement.

    We have experts on various themes, including on freedom of religion and Rohingya issues, and we produce monthly reports. We also undertake international advocacy to share our research with decision-makers such as United Nations (UN) representatives, European Union officials and staff of the US State Department, as well as decision-makers in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

    We also work with young people in Myanmar and build capacity around human rights, democracy and pluralism.

    A year on from the coup, what is the situation for activists and civil society in Myanmar, and how are human rights groups outside the country responding?

    The military has accused civil society activists of leading the resistance against the coup with backing and funding from the west. The military wants to destroy civil society, and many are being attacked and killed, so there is a lot of fear. Those in detention are in terrible conditions. Many have been tortured.

    Other activists who became aware that the coup was imminent were able to flee the country or leave the cities. They now operate from the outside, in Thailand and at the Thailand-Myanmar border, supporting those still in the country.

    We are calling for justice and the removal of the military from power. We have been calling for international sanctions since 2017, following the Rohingya genocide. However, at the time the international community was unwilling to take strong action, as they hoped that democratic reforms would be undertaken by the government of the National League for Democracy. There was only symbolic action but no targeting of the government at that time.

    Following the coup, we made clear to the international community that if we fail to take appropriate action, the junta would be emboldened to commit more crimes. Now, finally, targeted economic sanctions have been imposed and some companies, such as Chevron and Total, have decided to leave Myanmar. Some argue that economic sanctions will push Myanmar closer to China, but those people forget that in 2007, following sanctions after the Saffron Revolution, there was an internal revolt that led to the transition to a civilian government. The junta can’t survive long-term economic sanctions. The people of Myanmar know they may suffer due to sanctions, but many have told me they welcome them as long as they hit the military.

    We are also pushing for an arms embargo and to stop the sale of jet fuel to the junta, which they have used to bomb civilians. Another thing we request from the international community is humanitarian support.

    We are concerned about the UN’s position, which appears to view the military as a stakeholder in a potential power-sharing agreement. The UN Special Envoy recently expressed this position and we were very disappointed.

    We also have concerns with the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) formed in exile by those who had been democratically elected, because we have observed the exclusion of minorities. The NUG has no Muslim representation, so we don’t have a voice. This also affects the NUG’s credibility.

    How do you assess the response to the military coup by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)?

    In April 2021, a five-point consensus plan was agreed at an ASEAN summit. This included an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar, constructive dialogue among all parties, the appointment of a special ASEAN envoy to facilitate dialogue, the provision of humanitarian assistance and a visit by the envoy to Myanmar.

    However, ASEAN is not united on this. It includes three groupings that cannot agree on anything. For instance, Vietnam is close to Russia and would block any arms embargo. Thailand seems to support the military junta. Indonesia and Malaysia have taken a strong stand; we have engaged with them since day one and they have supported us. Singapore has also spoken up.

    It doesn’t help that the permanent members of the UN Security Council are toying with ASEAN, using this regional body as their proxy. They have passed the buck to ASEAN to resolve an issue that they have failed to tackle.

    We can’t expect more from ASEAN than it can deliver. We want the military to be removed from power and replaced with a civilian government, and this is something many ASEAN governments don’t understand. ASEAN’s five-point consensus plan has not been implemented. ASEAN has no weight on Myanmar unless China or the USA move. 

    We seem to have excessive expectations placed on ASEAN, while in fact there is not much it can do. The rest of the international community should step up and do more.

    What can international civil society do to support activists in Myanmar and hold the junta accountable?

    In the past we only focused on human rights investigations, but now we are also doing humanitarian work. We are renting and setting up safe houses to hide people and helping them leave the country. Costs have greatly increased but funding has remained the same.

    Those working in the country need the support of international civil society, and new ways to deliver support need to be devised because it has become dangerous to receive funds as the junta is monitoring bank accounts. There are also issues of accountability and transparency, as we cannot disclose the names of the people we are helping.

    However, I believe if we overcome this challenge, Myanmar’s civil society will emerge very strong. But we need more understanding and engagement with us.

    I believe nothing lasts forever and this too will pass. The junta will have to leave at some point. While the situation is quite bad, a good sign is that many military personnel have changed sides and now support the NUG. But we need to continue our struggle with a clear vision of the future that is centred on human rights and democracy. And we need support from the international community so those struggling on the ground will one day see their dreams come true.

    Civic space inMyanmar is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with BHRN through itswebsite and follow@kyawwin78 on Twitter. 

     

  • MYANMAR: ‘Opposition parties complain that the election body censors their messaging'

    Cape DiamondCIVICUS speaks to award-winning journalist Cape Diamond (Pyae Sone Win) about the upcoming elections in Myanmar. Cape is a multimedia journalist based in Myanmar, covering issues of human rights, crisis and conflict. Currently freelancing for the Associated Press (AP), he has provided critical coverage during the Rohingya crisis and contributed to numerous international outlets, including Al Jazeera, ABC News and CBS. He also contributed to the BAFTA Award-winning documentaryMyanmar’s Killing Fields and New York Film Festival gold medal award-winner The Rohingya Exodus.

     

    Scheduled on 8 November 2020, the election will be Myanmar’s first since 2015, which resulted in a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD), and only the second competitive election since 1990, when the military annulled the NLD’s overwhelming victory.

    What is the situation for civic freedoms and civil society ahead of the elections?

    The situation for the freedom of speech is very concerning. Over the years, journalists and rights activists in Myanmar have been criminally charged for their work. Restrictive laws, including the Telecommunications Law, the Unlawful Associations Act, the Official Secrets Act and defamation provisions in the Penal Code, continue to be used to prosecute activists and journalists. The Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law has been used against those protesting.

    Many political parties have raised complaints that the Union Election Commission (UEC), the electoral body, has censored the messages that are set for broadcast on national TV ahead of the elections. For example, Ko Ko Gyi, chairman of the People's Party, said that the edits that the UEC made to his election campaign speech prevent him from airing the party's full political stance ahead of the elections. Two parties – the Democratic Party for a New Society and the National Democratic Force – cancelled their election broadcasts in protest against censorship.

    At the same time, critics say that the electoral body is biased in favour of the ruling party, the NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi. It’s something that we should keep our eyes on and speak out about to ensure credible elections.

    Has the electoral body engaged with civil society?

    I’ve been hearing that the current UEC is not that actively engaging with civil society. They initially barred the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE), one of the largest election monitoring groups in the country, from monitoring the election. The UEC accused PACE of not being registered under the law that applies to civil society organisations and of receiving funding from international sources. Even though the UEC subsequently allowed PACE to operate, the organisation is struggling to proceed due to the newly imposed COVID-19 restrictions.

    What are the main issues the campaign will revolve around?

    The COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing civil war across the country are the main issues for us at the moment. It’s very clear that the ruling party and the government are not paying enough attention to the situation of minorities in regions experiencing civil war. 

    It’s worrying that the country is undergoing a pandemic, which I believe it does not have enough capacity to handle. As of 29 September 2020, we have had a total of 11,000 reported cases and 284 deaths due to COVID-19. A surge of infections over the last few weeks has been worrying, as we only had around 400 confirmed cases in August. I am concerned about whether the environment will be safe for people to go out and vote on the election days. 

    More than 20 political parties have sent requests to the electoral body to postpone the elections due to the pandemic, but they were rejected. The ruling party is not willing to have the elections postponed.

    Will it be possible to have a ‘normal’ campaign in this context? 

    I don’t think it’s possible to have normal campaign rallies such as those of the previous election in 2015, because we are in a pandemic. The government has taken several measures to combat the spread of the disease, including orders against gatherings of people. Political parties are not allowed to organise their campaigns in semi-lockdown areas.

    Major cities like Yangon and the Yangon Region, as well as some townships in Mandalay, are under semi-lockdown, which the government calls the Stay-At-Home programme. At the same time, the whole of Rakhine State, which is experiencing civil war, is also on semi-lockdown. I am afraid people in the civil war zone will not be able to go out and vote.

    Candidates are using both mainstream and social media to reach their audiences. However, as noted earlier, some opposition parties have been censored by the UEC. Some opposition members have denounced unfair treatment by the UEC and the government, while the ruling party is using its power to expand its popularity. This will clearly harm the electoral chances of the opposition.

    What specific challenges do candidates face in Rakhine State?

    As the whole of Rakhine State is under COVID-19 restrictions, candidates are not able to campaign in person. Therefore, they are mostly campaigning on social media. At the same time, a long internet shutdown has been in place in many townships in Rakhine State, imposed due to ongoing fighting between the Arakan Army and the military. I am concerned about whether people will be able to get enough information around the elections.

    The Myanmar government is also using the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law and the Election Law to disenfranchise Rohingya people and block them from running for political office. Election officials barred Kyaw Min, head of the Rohingya-led Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP), from running. He was disqualified along with two other DHRP candidates because their parents were allegedly not citizens, as required by election law. This is one of the various tools used to oppress the Rohingya population.

    In October, the UEC released a smartphone app that was criticised over its use of a derogatory label for Rohingya Muslims. The mVoter2020 app, aimed at improving voter awareness, labels at least two candidates from the Rohingya ethnic group as ‘Bengali’, a term that implies they are immigrants from Bangladesh, although most have lived in Myanmar for generations. This label is rejected by many Rohingya people. Additionally, none of the one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and another several hundred thousand dispersed in other countries will be allowed to vote.

    Civic space in Myanmar is rated asrepressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Follow@cape_diamond on Twitter.

     

  • MYANMAR: “The military turned medical workers from heroes to criminals overnight”

    Nay Lin Tun May

    CIVICUS speaks to Nay Lin Tun, a medical doctor who regularly volunteers with rescue teams in emergency areas in the city of Yangon, Myanmar. Since the military seized power through a coup on 1 February 2021, the army has launched abrutal crackdown against the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), a protest movement that spread across the country.Medical workers have played a key role in the movement.

    Ever since the coup, Nay Lin Tun has been on the frontline treating protesters injured by the security forces. He previously worked in Rakhine State providing mobile community-based medical care to Rohingya people and other internally displaced populations in conflict-affected areas. He was also involved in theGoalkeepers Youth Action Accelerator campaign dedicated to accelerating progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

    What has the situation been since the coup? How has the medical system been affected?

    Since the military coup occurred on 1 February, our lives entered darkness: internet access, the freedom of expression, the freedom of speech and all our basic human rights have been denied. I cannot believe that such a military coup can still happen in the 21st century. We live in a cycle of fear every day and are afraid of getting arrested or killed for no reason.

    People were already in a stage of desperation before the coup, due to the social and economic hardships associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. They were hoping that their business would recover and grow when COVID-19 infection figures fell in Myanmar. Now, all these plans are gone. People have said they would rather die fighting for a democratic future than live under a military junta.

    Almost all government departments and ministries are shut down because the CDM is boycotting all services linked to the military and promoting labour strikes and walkouts by civil servants and other workers. Health systems have all collapsed.

    Worryingly, COVID-19 prevention and control mechanisms have also stopped since the coup, as has the vaccination campaign. The authorities bought 30 million COVID-19 vaccine doses from the Indian government, which were shipped in January and April 2021. But there are lots of data discrepancies between those who have received the first dose and those who have received the second: 1.54 million people have received the COVID-19 vaccine once but only 0.34 million have been vaccinated for a second time. This shows the failure of the vaccination programme. In addition, the COVID-19 surveillance system has been slow and has low testing capacities. This puts many people at risk in case a third or fourth wave of COVID-19 hits Myanmar.

    How are medical workers responding to the pandemic and the coup?

    Myanmar healthcare professionals have shown their strength and commitment, and have been hailed as COVID-19 heroes, since the beginning of the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak. At that time, there were not enough resources to treat those infected and cases began rising; deaths reached a total of 3,209 (according to the Ministry of Health and Sports (MOHS) website, COVID-19 Dashboard data updated on 4 May 2021). But, due to our admirable health heroes and good leadership, the slope of COVID-19 infections declined in late 2020 and people in Myanmar began to receive vaccines in the last week of January 2021. Myanmar was the third country to have a COVID-19 vaccination programme in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region, right after more developed countries such as Indonesia and Singapore.

    But all these positive developments have been destroyed overnight. On 1 February, all elected government officials, including State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, were detained. People have not been willing to accept this takeover by an abusive military junta and are showing their anger on the streets. The military forces have brutally cracked down on the protests with lethal weapons and real bullets. This has led to 769 people being killed as of 4 May, according to data from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). Due to the military coup, government workers left their jobs to join the CDM. It was medical workers from the MOHS who initiated this movement, and they were followed by those in other departments and ministries.

    Therefore, the military has targeted government staff involved in the CDM protest movement and those who support them. They have tried to arrest them using a new provision in the Penal Code, Section 505A, that can be used to punish comments regarding the illegitimacy of the coup or the military government, among other violations. These are punishable with up to three years in prison.

    By doing so, the military turned medical workers from heroes to criminals overnight. The military spokesperson for the Tatmadaw Information Team, Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun, has even accused government doctors who withdrew their services after joining the CDM of murdering people in cold blood.

    In reality, CDM doctors are helping the public in various ways, including by providing free treatment at private hospitals and charity clinics, making home visits and providing telephone counselling. Due to the military coup, people have faced numerous challenges and insecurity both day and night. Curfews are in place from 8 pm to 6 am in all states and regions except Rakhine State. In addition, the internet is blocked for those accessing it via SIM cards and Wi-Fi services; as a result, most people lack internet access and the flow of information is restricted. All these conditions have had a major impact on people’s ability to reach out to healthcare services on time.

    What risks do medical workers face for speaking out?

    Currently, all the medical doctors who help anti-coup protesters risk arrest and those who joined the CDM are on an arrest list. Up to now, according to AAPP data, more than 4,700 people, including elected leaders, election commissioners, anti-regime protesters, teachers, doctors, journalists, writers, artists and civilians, have been arrested since the coup. Therefore, if we speak out, we face a high risk of arrest anytime, any day in any place.

    According to the latest information, not even free charity clinics are now allowed to accept CDM doctors or admit wounded patients for treatment. The military is also acting against private hospitals, which are forced to shut down, and have their doctors arrested if they accept CDM doctors’ consultations.

    Have you witnessed military violence against civilians?

    On the evening of 9 April, reports began emerging that security forces had killed scores of people in the city of Bago, about 80 kilometres north-east of Yangon, after unleashing heavy weapons and grenades to disperse protesters occupying barricades. Before launching the operation in Bago, the armed forces had blocked the roads, preventing ambulances from picking up the wounded, many of whom were eventually dumped in a monastery compound.

    At least 80 people were killed in Bago that day, but the final death toll will probably never be known. Something else we will likely never know is how many of the wounded died because they did not receive treatment. I arrived in Bago three days later to help treat the wounded. It was a difficult task. Many injured protesters were in hiding, for fear they would be arrested if they sought treatment. We were also told that volunteer medical workers had been detained by the security forces.

    As a frontline medical volunteer, I have regularly witnessed the brutality of the junta’s operations to disperse protesters. The first time was during a protest near Thanlyin Technological University in the outer south-eastern Yangon Region on 9 March. Troops had occupied the campus, and students were protesting peacefully to demand that they leave. The security forces suddenly opened fire with live rounds, leaving several people injured. We began treating some of the injured in a safe house not far from the site of the protest, but then soldiers arrived nearby, and we had to quickly evacuate the patients to another safe house. Thankfully, we managed to get them to a safe location and continued treating them.

    How can the international community support medical workers?

    Attacks on health facilities and personnel must be documented by national and international bodies. We are lucky that the World Health Organization has a surveillance system on attacks on healthcare facilities and personnel, which are recorded daily. From 1 February to 30 April, there were at least 158 attacks on healthcare facilities, vehicles, staff and supplies, as well as against patients, resulting in 11 deaths and 51 injuries. These facts help people understand the scope of the problem and can guide the design of interventions to prevent and respond to the attacks. But in Myanmar, there isn’t a leading organisation that can take action to prevent attacks and violence against healthcare personnel. Therefore, we need international pressure on Myanmar authorities and need international humanitarian organisations to address this issue seriously. 

    The international community should stand together with us in condemning the attacks on healthcare facilities and workers and unite with Myanmar healthcare workers in speaking out forcefully against all acts of discrimination, intimidation and violence against healthcare workers and facilities. Support to frontline medical workers in the form of medicines and other emergency aid would also be welcome.

    What is your hope for Myanmar?

    I wish for a day when all our healthcare workers receive full respect in accordance with our professional role. In other countries, medical professionals also held protests against their government, but their governments engaged with them and worked out agreements to end the protests because medical workers deal with millions of patients and in a democracy, their protests could have an impact on elected officials. Therefore, doctors’ strikes in other countries did not last long.

    It is the opposite in Myanmar. The military has unleashed a brutal crackdown on striking doctors and has arrested health workers. Doctors who are involved in the CDM can be sentenced to up to three years of imprisonment. CDM doctors have also been arrested at their homes and even in their clinics while providing treatment to patients. Therefore, it will be a very meaningful day for all our medical workers in Myanmar when we get full respect for our work.

    We also aspire to have a professional body that can protect all healthcare workers from attacks. The Myanmar Medical Association and Medical Council have silently witnessed the arrest of our brothers and sisters in the medical sector. We should receive full protection from a strong medical association.

    Last but not least, according to medical ethics reflected in the Hippocratic Oath, we have a full duty of care for the safety of patients that require treatment. Treatment of needy patients in an emergency should not be seen as a crime. But our medical teams are targeted for arrest for providing medical assistance. We wish one day all our medical workers will have freedom of care with no limitation.

    Civic space inMyanmaris rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • Myanmar: Release all activists and politicians detained and restore democracy

    GettyImages 1299737267 Save Myanmar

    Global civil society alliance CIVICUS is alarmed that the military’s takeover of control of Myanmar from the civilian government represents a sharp reversal of the partial yet significant progress toward democracy made in recent years following five decades of military rule and international isolation.

     

  • New sentence by Venezuela´s Supreme Court consecrates a coup against the Venezuelan parliament

    Spanish

    Sentence No. 156, released around midnight on March 29, by which the Constitutional Chamber of Venezuela´s Supreme Court (TSJ) assumes all the powers of the National Assembly or delegates them to whom it decides, places Venezuela before the dissolution of the parliament by judicial means.

    There is no constitutional provision that allows the judicial body, designated by means of second-degree elections, to assume the functions of the National Assembly, which directly represents the population.

    The Constitutional Chamber has issued over 50 decisions that have gradually deprived the National Assembly of its legislative, controlling, investigative and designating functions, until it suspended parliamentary immunity by Sentence No. 155 the previous day, and finally assumes parliamentary functions as the legislative power.

    The parliament is a fundamental pillar of democratic institutions, as it is a space for participation and expression of the different groups that make up a nation. It is the space in which elected representatives, as well as organizations and members of civil society can debate and discuss the different proposals to create legislation and public policies. In this sense, this measure not only disrupts the constitutional order, but also violates the right of citizens to participate in public affairs.

    We call on the Supreme Court of Justice and the National Executive to cease ignoring the Constitution, as has been evidenced after the publication of the most recent decisions of the Constitutional Chamber, which allow for the implementation of measures and actions that undermine the Constitutional thread and break the democratic order in Venezuela, reaffirming the absence of the Rule of Law and consolidating a Dictatorial regime.

    Finally, we again urge that corrective measures be taken to reverse any decision that violates the constitutional norm, ignore the power of the popular vote represented in the elected National Assembly and deepen the country's withdrawal from a democratic system of respect for fundamental guarantees and human rights, in order to restore democracy and the rule of law, beginning with restoring and respecting the functions of the National Assembly.

    Subscribed by the following Venezuelan Civil Society Organizations:
    Acceso a La Justicia
    Acción Campesina
    Acción Solidaria
    Amigos Trasplantados de Venezuela
    Asamblea De Educación
    Asociación Civil María Estrella De La Mañana
    Asociación Civil Mujeres En Línea
    Asociación Civil Nueva Esparta En Movimiento
    Asociación Civil Radar De Los Barrios
    Asociación de Profesores de la Universidad Simón Bolívar, APUSB
    Asociación Venezolana de Mujeres
    Asociación Venezolana para La Hemofilia
    Aula Abierta Venezuela
    Banco Del Libro
    Cedice Libertad
    Centro de Animación Juvenil
    Centro de Derechos Humanos de la Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, CDH-UCAB
    Centro de Estudios Sociales y Culturales
    Centro de Justicia y Paz, CEPAZ
    CIVILIS Derechos Humanos
    Coalición Cambio Climático 21
    Coalición por el Derecho a la Salud y la Vida, CODEVIDA
    Comisión de Derechos Humanos de la Facultad de Ciencias Jurídicas y Políticas, Universidad del Zulia
    Comisión de Derechos Humanos de la Federación Venezolana de Colegios de Abogados, Estado Táchira
    Comisión de Derechos Humanos de la Federación Venezolana de Colegios de Abogados, Estado Apure
    Comisión de Derechos Humanos de la Federación Venezolana de Colegios de Abogados, Estado Mérida
    Comisión para los Derechos Humanos del Estado Zulia
    Convite Asociación Civil
    Correo Del Caroní
    Espacio Humanitario
    Espacio Público
    EXCUBITUS, Derechos Humanos en Educación
    Federación Nacional de Sociedades de Padres y Representantes, FENASOPADRES
    Frente en Defensa del Norte de Caracas y Asamblea de Ciudadanos de La Candelaria
    Funcamama
    Fundación TAAP
    Fundamujer
    Fundeci
    Instituto Venezolano de Estudios Sociales y Políticos, INVESP
    IPYS Venezuela
    Laboratorio De Paz
    Llamado a la Conciencia Vial
    Médicos Unidos Carabobo
    Movimiento Vinotinto
    Observatorio de Derechos Humanos de la Universidad de Los Andes
    Observatorio Global de Comunicación y Democracia
    Observatorio Hannah Arendt
    Observatorio Venex
    Observatorio Venezolano de Conflictividad Social, OVCS
    Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones, OVP
    OPCION Venezuela Asociación Civil
    Programa Venezolano de Educación-Acción en Derechos Humanos, PROVEA
    ProIuris
    Promoción Educación y Defensa en Derechos Humanos, PROMEDEHUM
    Sinergia, Asociación Venezolana de Organizaciones de Sociedad Civil
    Sociedad Hominis Iura, SOHI
    StopVIH
    Transparencia Venezuela
    Un Mundo Sin Mordaza
    Una Ventana a la Libertad
    Unión Afirmativa de Venezuela
    Unión Vecinal para la Participación Ciudadana
    Veedores por la Educación Aragua

     

  • NICARAGUA: ‘For the government, these fraudulent elections were a total failure’

    CIVICUS discusses the recent elections in Nicaragua, characterised by the banning of candidates, fraud and repression, with a woman human rights defender from a national platform of Nicaraguan civil society, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

    Nicaragua elections Nov 2021

    What was the political context in which the 7 November presidential election took place?

    The context began to take shape in 2006, with the pact between the leaders of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), Daniel Ortega, and the then-ruling Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), led by former president Arnoldo Alemán. The aim of the so-called ‘Alemán-Ortega pact’ was to establish a two-party system dominated by both leaders, which did not work out for both: it resulted in a complete restructuring of the political system, including a reform of the constitution and the modification of election dates, which allowed the FSLN – which had failed to win the presidency on several occasions – to win the 2006 election with 38 per cent of the vote, never to leave power since.

    Once in power, the FSLN carried out several constitutional and electoral law reforms ordered by Daniel Ortega, in collusion with legislative, judicial and electoral institutions, to impose a constitution tailored to its needs and to allow himself to be re-elected indefinitely.

    Since the most recent package of electoral changes, carried out in May 2021, the electoral stage was already set so that the current government would win the election. The changes gave the FSLN control of the entire electoral structure, gave the police the power to authorise or ban opposition political rallies and took away funding for candidates.

    Already in December 2020, the National Assembly had passed a law to neutralise opposition candidacies: under the pretext of rejecting foreign interference in Nicaragua’s internal affairs, it prohibited the candidacies of people who had participated in the 2018 protests, labelled by the government as an attempted coup d’état financed by foreign powers.

    All these laws were applied by state institutions in a way that resulted in the banning of all democratic candidates who could in any way be viewed as positioned to defeat the FSLN candidate. The result was an election lacking all real competition.

    Was there any attempt to postpone the election until the proper conditions were met?

    First, in the context of the 2018 protests, which were heavily repressed and resulted in hundreds of deaths, several groups, including the Nicaraguan Bishops’ Conference, proposed holding an early election to resolve the crisis. Some also considered the possibility of forcing the resignation of the president due to his responsibility for the systematic human rights violations committed in the context of the 2018 protests.

    But Ortega refused to call an early election, and instead challenged the alleged ‘coup perpetrators’ protesting against him to get the people’s vote in the 2021 election. In the meantime, instead of proceeding with the electoral reform that had been demanded for years, he set about preparing the ground so that no one could challenge him in the elections.

    With the 2021 electoral process already underway, and in view of the fact that there would be no real competition, voices from civil society recommended suspending and rescheduling an election that would be clearly illegitimate and lacking in credibility, but this call was not echoed.

    How do you assess the election results?

    Clearly the overwhelming majority of Nicaraguan citizens viewed these elections as illegitimate, since only about 10 per cent of eligible voters turned out to vote. Some of those who did vote are government supporters, while others – such as members of the military and police and public servants – were compelled by fear and their work circumstances.

    These claims are supported by polling data from various civil society groups inside and outside Nicaragua, such as Coordinadora Civil, Mujeres Organizadas and Urnas Abiertas. On election day, some of these organisations did a quick poll on the ground, twice – morning and afternoon – and documented. through photos, videos and testimonies by some election observers invited by the government, that the majority of the population did not turn out to vote.

    From civil society’s perspective, these elections were a complete failure for the government, as they gave us all the elements to demonstrate at the international level that the president does not meet the minimum conditions of legitimacy to remain in office. It is not only Nicaraguans who do not recognise the results of these elections: more than 40 countries around the world have not recognised them either. The government conducted a fraudulent election to gain legitimacy, but it failed to do so because no one recognises it at the national or international level.

    What is the outlook for Nicaraguan civil society following the election?

    The panorama has not changed. What awaits us is more of the same: more repression, more persecution, more kidnappings, more political prisoners, more exiles. At the same time, this unresponsive and unaccountable government is completely incapable of solving any of Nicaragua’s problems, so poverty, unemployment and insecurity will also continue to deepen.

    In response, we can do nothing but sustain resistance and try to break the chains of fear, because fear is what this illegitimate government rules through.

    What kind of international support does Nicaraguan civil society need?

    Nicaraguan civil society needs all kinds of support, from support for building and strengthening alliances to amplify our voices, so we can publicise the political situation in Nicaragua and demand action in international forums, to financial and in-kind support to equip us with the tools with which to do our work, sustain our organisations and provide protection for human rights defenders who are being persecuted and attacked.

    Civic space in Nicaragua is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. Nicaragua is currently on ourWatch List, which includes cases in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place. 

     

  • NICARAGUA: ‘María Esperanza’s case is part of a growing process of criminalisation of social protest’

    CIVICUS speaks with Ana Lucía Álvarez, Nicaragua officer of the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders (IM-Defensoras), about the case of María Esperanza Sánchez, unjustly imprisoned in Nicaragua since March 2020, and the ongoing campaign for her release.

    IM-Defensoras is a network of activists and organisations from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Nicaragua that seeks to provide a comprehensive, regional response to the increasing violence against women human rights defenders in Mesoamerica. Founded in 2010, it seeks to empower and connect women defenders involved in various organisations and social movements to strengthen networks of protection and solidarity among them and to increase the visibility, recognition and impact of their human rights work.

    Ana Lucia AlvarezEntrevista

    How long has María Esperanza been in prison, and why?

    María Esperanza was captured on 26 January 2020. She is an activist who for a long time accompanied relatives of political prisoners. I believe she began her activism and her organisation after the citizens’ uprising of April 2018. She was already being persecuted, so she was staying in a safe house. The police illegally and arbitrarily raided the house, without a search warrant, and arrested her. She was accused of trafficking narcotics, psychotropics and other controlled substances to the detriment of public health. Her trial is being handled by lawyer Julio Montenegro, who specialises in cases of criminalisation of protest and judicial prosecution of activists and human rights defenders. 

    Do you consider María Esperanza’s case to be part of a broader attack on civic space in Nicaragua?

    There is definitely a growing process of criminalisation of social protest in Nicaragua. The first upsurge in criminalisation came after Operation Clean-up, which ended around August 2018. This was a pseudo-military operation carried out by police and para-police forces to dismantle any organisation of territorial protection that the population had built through barricades in neighbourhoods and roadblocks around the country.

    Once Operation Clean-up was over, the criminalisation of those who had taken part in the civic struggle began. More than 800 people became political prisoners, before being released in 2019 by unilateral decision of the government through the Amnesty Law.

    María Esperanza had already been persecuted, harassed, put under surveillance and threatened before she was imprisoned for her human rights work. Her arrest and trial, like those of so many others, were plagued by irregularities. Violations of due process are systematic. In Nicaragua, the justice system is totally co-opted. It has collapsed and is under the control of the presidential couple: President Daniel Ortega and his vice-president and wife, Rosario Murillo.

    How has the situation of civil society changed since the 2018 wave of protests?

    More than 350 people were killed in a span of six months during the 2018 protests. The symbolic and emotional weight of that death toll in a country that has experienced civil wars, dictatorships and armed uprisings has been tremendous. In Nicaragua there has never been accountability, there have always been policies of wiping the slate clean, which has deepened the wounds.

    In addition to the suffering of the 350 dead, there were over 800 people imprisoned for political reasons, and while many have since been released from prison, we purposefully say that they have been released rather than that they are free, because after their release, political persecution has not ended for them. Systematic harassment by police and para-police forces continues, and it becomes an obstacle to the enjoyment of many rights, including the right to work.

    For these people, the effects of the economic crisis that the country is currently experiencing are compounded by the difficulties brought about by political persecution. They often cannot leave their home because there is a patrol outside, or they go out and they are followed, and then those who follow them learn the names of their employers and start to harass them as well.

    Persecution happens at the local, neighbourhood level. The ruling party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, has established various structures that are used to maintain territorial control through surveillance and repression: Councils of Citizen Power, Family Cabinets and Sandinista Leadership Committees. If you are an opponent or a human rights defender, there will always be a neighbour of yours who is involved in one of these structures and informs the regime and the police of what you are doing, and then you start to be persecuted and harassed, and maybe at some point you get arbitrarily arrested.

    Harassment and hypervigilance cause psychological damage not only to the persecuted individual but also to their family. This has had an impact on the increase in emigration, which is a dual phenomenon, caused by both political persecution and social need. Since 2018, 120,000 people have left Nicaragua, a huge number for a country of just six million.

    The 2021 presidential election openly exposed the regime’s lack of legitimacy. On what basis does the government stand?

    In the run-up to the 2021 election, persecution was only exacerbated. In order to carry out the electoral farce of November, the government imprisoned 10 presidential pre-candidates and many people with a key role in the electoral process and in the formation of alternatives. This sent a very clear message, as a result of which there is still a lot of self-censorship.

    Daniel Ortega has continued to concentrate and consolidate his power. We are currently living under a regime that has become totalitarian, where all freedoms are totally restricted. This is the only way the government can sustain itself, because it has no legitimacy. That is why repression and social control continue to increase rather than decrease. In the absence of such levels of repression and social control, the very high level of popular rejection of the regime would make it impossible for it to maintain political control.

    As a result, repression, territorial control, neighbourhood repression, the criminalisation of protest and social dissent, and the closing of spaces for the exercise of the freedom of expression and media freedoms can be expected to continue.

    Now a combination of laws has been passed that includes a Cybercrime Law. And we have already seen the first political prisoner convicted under this law, which does nothing other than criminalise the freedom of opinion.

    What the government is looking for with political prisoners is to use them as hostages. Among the people arrested recently are presidential candidates, businesspeople, bankers, lawyers, activists and human rights defenders. The government is trying to negotiate their release to gain legitimacy and international approval.

    The truth is that the government has no international support. The only foreign leaders who attended the presidential inauguration were Cuba’s Miguel Díaz-Canel, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and outgoing Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández.

    How can the international community support Nicaraguan civil society in its struggle for the recovery of democracy and human rights?

    We need to amplify denunciations of violations and sharpen accountability mechanisms. Civil society in Nicaragua has made a tremendous effort not only to document human rights violations but also to identify their perpetrators. Given that the justice system in Nicaragua has collapsed, and that civil society is doing everything within its power, the onus is on the international community to push for accountability and punishment of those responsible.

    Daniel Ortega’s regime is no longer a political project but an economic enterprise. Its control of the state allows Ortega to use corruption networks to his advantage. In the light of this, the international community should fine-tune its mechanisms, review economic sanctions and identify the companies that continue to do business, not always entirely legally, with the Ortega regime. Since many association agreements have democratic and anti-corruption clauses, they need to be made operational. Personal sanctions must also be imposed on the architects of corruption and repression.

    What kind of pressure should be exerted to get María Esperanza Sanchez released?

    María Esperanza was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Everything that has happened to her and to the rest of the political prisoners is completely arbitrary; that is precisely why we consider them to be political prisoners. What we demand is the unconditional and guaranteed release of them all.

    What happens to them will depend to a large extent on the strength with which the opposition and the international community manage to exert pressure, and on the correlation of forces that is established between the Nicaraguan government and the human rights movement.

    We must campaign and keep up the pressure. We must continue to put our finger on all the arbitrariness, illegalities and human rights violations. There are still people in Europe and other parts of the world who think Ortega is the idealistic revolutionary of the past, and not the despot he has become. The best way to expose dictators and human rights abusers is to keep communicating the truth on the basis of well-documented evidence.

    Civic space in Nicaragua is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. Nicaragua is currently on theCIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
    Get in touch with IM-Defensoras through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@IM_Defensoras on Twitter.

     

  • Pakistan:‘International support to civil society must come with understanding of our political & societal context’

    Rabia Mehmood

    CIVICUS speaks about the political situation in Pakistan since the removal of its Prime Minister Imran Khan with journalist and researcher Rabia Mehmood.

    Rabia Mehmoodis the co-founder of a bi-lingual multimedia news outlet Naya Daur TV and a web-show host covering human rights and social justice stories. She is the former South Asia Researcher for Amnesty International. Her work focuses on state repression, impunity and persecution of religious minorities.

    What led to the ousting of Imran Khan as prime minister through a no-confidence vote?

    Khan was ousted from power in April through a constitutional vote of no confidence brought about by the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), a parliamentary coalition of multiple parties. The coalition secured 174 votes in the 342-member house in support of the no-confidence motion.

    That was the tipping point after weeks of political upheaval. Khan’s administration was criticised by the opposition for failures in governance, soaring inflation and for plunging the country into a diplomatic crisis as his foreign policy distanced Pakistan from the USA.

    To try to block the vote, Khan dissolved the lower house of parliament, but the Supreme Court declared the dissolution unconstitutional. Following the parliamentary vote, Shehbaz Sharif, former Chief Minister of Punjab from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was appointed the new Prime Minister. Sharif is a long-time rival of Khan.

    Since the July 2018 election, the opposition claimed that Khan’s ascent to power was enabled by political engineering by the country’s military establishment. His administration was termed a ‘hybrid regime’, in which Khan was the civilian face of the generals. The key reason behind Khan’s removal is believed to be his falling out with powerful forces within the military, often referred to as the ‘deep state’.

    Regarding the involvement of the military in Pakistan’s political unrest, it is important to note that the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) is considered by many to be the most powerful position in Pakistan. The current COAS, Qamar Bajwa, appointed by Nawaz Sharif in 2016, is finally due to retire in November after six years.

    Sharif was disqualified in 2017 and put behind bars following a corruption scandal. But after Khan won the election in 2018, he granted Bajwa an extension in August 2019. Bajwa was at the time known to be a great believer in the Khan project, along with the former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief General Faiz Hameed, now Commander of Peshawar Corps. But Bajwa, it appears, has now withdrawn support from Khan.

    Hameed is known to have a different relationship with Khan, and Khan was reliant on him. He was deeply involved in the Khan administration’s repression, in addition to engineering unrest on the streets by an alt-right Islamist group in 2017, which led to further disruption of Sharif’s party.

    It remains to be seen whether Bajwa is seeking yet another extension in November or a safe and comfortable exit, which would pave the way for a new COAS. Analysts estimate that Khan had to be got rid of due to these possible changes in November, and it was an easy task for the military to replace Khan because of his administration’s unsatisfactory governance and economic performance.

    The military has repeatedly claimed to be a ‘neutral umpire’ during this political fiasco. In the run-up to Khan’s ousting and afterwards, Khan’s tactics, of slamming the armed forces and the current ISI chief, show his dissatisfaction with the military institution’s neutrality.

    How has Khan responded?

    In response to the vote of no confidence, Khan also accused the US government of orchestrating regime change in Pakistan. This allegation is based on a diplomatic cable that he claimed was ‘evidence’. When Khan dissolved the assembly ahead of the vote, he had resolved to present the diplomatic cable as evidence of foreign intervention.

    It was later reported that the military explained to parliament’s National Security Committee in March that it had found no evidence of US involvement in regime change, something the White House concurred with.

    In April, as soon as Khan was ousted, he and his party leaders began using terms like ‘American conspiracy’ and ‘international conspiracy’, online and offline. Khan called his opponents ‘thieves’ and ‘traitors’, and one of his close aides called in a public rally for the execution of the ‘traitor opposition’. During his public and press addresses, Khan has called for mutiny, incited his party supporters to commit civil disobedience and encouraged them to retaliate physically.

    Since then Khan has held multiple public rallies across Pakistan and in July his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), swept by-elections in Punjab, the country’s most populous province, and traditionally a PMLN stronghold. Now the already weak incumbent central government in the centre is facing further hostility from Punjab.

    Khan has been calling for general elections. His narrative has a strong following in the country, and his support base appears to be in resurgence.

    What is the current political and economic situation?

    Pakistan is stuck in limbo due to a worsening political, legal and economic crisis. The leadership is divided between the Sharif-led coalition government and federal ministries led by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), such as the ministry of foreign affairs. Provinces are also split between different parties, with Khan’s PTI leading in the two provinces.

    The coalition government is weak and uncertainty over its immediate future looms large. Analysts assume that the ‘deep state’ will not allow for a strong civilian central government, and that a divided parliament is what it seeks to achieve.

    The new government has taken over a fragile economy. Pakistan entered the International Monetary Fund programme in 2019, and the most recent funding was due in February, but fuel and power tariff caps imposed by the Khan administration halted the next cycle. The new government has now managed to negotiate and get clearance for another payment, but this has come at the price of tough economic decisions, with the burden impacting on the working masses and the salaried class.

    Fuel prices have increased exponentially, which are causing a rise in commodity prices and exacerbating food inflation. Meanwhile, political and economic uncertainty is also causing the currency to depreciate quickly. In the budget for the current fiscal year, the government increased tax and hiked fuel prices. Pakistan’s foreign debt is US$6.4 billion, but at least the immediate risk of bankruptcy has reduced for now.

    Access to basic services, free healthcare and education and adequate housing is increasingly out of reach of most of Pakistan’s 220 million people. Pakistan is essentially a poor country with some very rich families and an army with a massive budget. Instability is having severe repercussions for citizens in terms of their rights and the rule of law.

    Civilian and military rulers have been too reliant on seeking bailout packages instead of focusing on long-term solutions such as taxing the rich and the corporate sector, or developing agriculture and increasing industrial exports. Economic stagnation, however, is not the fault of just one government.

    Has the removal of Khan had a positive influence on Pakistan’s repressed civic space?

    Pakistan’s track record on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression has been murky for decades. Civil society groups and activists have long been labelled as foreign agents, funded by anti-Pakistan forces. It is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist in. Religious minorities are persecuted and discriminated against through institutions, draconian laws and violence. Ethnic minorities are brutalised for demanding basic rights and protections from the state. The military establishment and security agencies operate with impunity.

    In that context, the battle to defend civic space and media freedom is not new. But since the run-up to the July 2018 election, Pakistanis have been subjected to one of the most repressive eras of the country’s history. Press censorship has been widespread, curtailing any media attempts to question or report on significant issues such as Sharif’s disqualification, the role of the judiciary and military and reports of election rigging.

    Khan established his place as a populist leader, and was called a press predator by Reporters Without Borders. During the Khan administration, journalists, human rights defenders (HRDs) and dissenting citizens were targeted with trumped-up charges of sedition, cyber terrorism and defamation of national institutions, along with arbitrary arrests, raids, disappearances, surveillance and beatings. Journalists were arbitrarily arrested for questioning and reporting on the alleged involvement in corruption of Khan’s wife, Bushara Bibi. Mainstream cable news networks were only allowed to attack opposition parties and their leaders, and portray Khan as the supreme leader. Civil rights movements, such as the Pashtun Tahaffuz Mahaz, were subjected to a discriminatory crackdown. Their rights to freedoms of movement, peaceful assembly and expression, online and offline, have been continuously violated.

    To a degree, Khan’s ousting has given slight breathing space to Pakistan’s repressed HRDs, civil society and journalists. The difference could be that reprisals can be documented in the press, by domestic rights monitors and be televised, with less fear. But this is only relative, as red lines for both the media and civil society still exist.

    The threats and discrimination against ethnic, religious and sexual minorities continue. There are incidents of the use of force against peaceful protesting families of disappeared members of Baloch people, enforced disappearances and discriminatory harassment of Baloch students. A former journalist was arbitrarily detained over online criticism of the army chief. While peacefully protesting, civil society collectives, HRDs and families of the disappeared were shelled in the city of Quetta on 21 July.

    Severely partisan journalists who acted as agents of disinformation and supported the Khan administration by actively targeting minorities, critical media, HRDs and the opposition are now on the receiving end of hostility from security agencies, as they are questioning the military over its alleged role in Khan’s ousting and lack of support for him.

    What is the future of Pakistan’s democracy?

    It appears to be bleak. Pakistan’s democratic process has been undermined severely by decades of dictatorships, the military establishment’s concealed intervention in civilian rule, the dubious role of the judiciary and a short-sighted, craven approach by civilian political parties.

    Since its inception, Pakistan has been ruled by military dictators directly for 33 years, and they have controlled who gets to rule and how from behind the scenes. No civilian prime minister has ever completed their full five-year term. Real power lies in the hands of the generals, who set up hybrid regimes in collaboration with civilian leaders.

    General Zia-ul-Haq overthrew the government of PPP’s charismatic Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in a coup d’état in 1977. In 1979, Bhutto was executed by a severely partisan Supreme Court, while Zia became president. Over the decades, the capitulation of the civilian ruling elite and the role of the judiciary in sanctioning coups have also contributed to the derailing of the country’s ever-fragile democracy.

    For example, former Prime Minister Sharif’s disqualification was widely believed to have been a consequence of a ‘judicial coup’. The National Accountability Bureau chaired by a former Supreme Court judge was severely partisan and flawed, and used to victimise leaders of the PMLN and PPP.

    Decades of conflict in the north-western region, the military’s reliance on militant groups as its proxies and the current resurgence of militant outfits at the border all pose a threat to Pakistan’s stability and consequently its democracy. Sectarian outfits are enduring. Nationalist ethnicities in Sindh and elsewhere are treated with extreme suspicion, which causes the growth of their young people’s resentment towards the state.

    For example, the armed insurgency in Balochistan province has its roots in a lack of trust in the military and the state’s discriminatory policies. The people of the mineral-rich province are poor and have been subjected to human rights abuses and violence for years. Meanwhile, barely any efforts to build trust among Baloch people have been made by state institutions. The militarisation of multiple regions and violence perpetrated on citizens are contrary to democratic norms.

    Unless the constitution and parliament are held supreme in the true sense of the word, and intervention by the powers-that-be isn’t kept in check, Pakistan’s democracy will not be able to address its many challenges and will remain at risk.

    How has civil society engaged with political developments? What kind of international support does Pakistani civil society need?

    Civil society and collectives of HRDs have responded to the political developments with caution but courage. Civil society and HRDs understand where the centre of power lies in Pakistan. Yet it has not stopped them from asking the right questions and leading human rights campaigns. Overall, from larger civil society organisations to smaller but critical collectives, civil society has stood in support of the primacy of parliament, the constitution and democratic processes.

    Years of demonisation of civil society and labelling of HRDs and journalists as anti-state and servers of foreign, western agendas have made it easy for propagandists and authoritarian sections of the state to put targets on the backs of people. International solidarity is essential for Pakistani civil society. But now with disinformation and propaganda smear campaigns on the rise, the support must come with an understanding of the political and societal context of Pakistan.

    Religious, ethnic, sexual and gender minorities, journalists, civil society workers and HRDs remain at risk, not only due to state reprisals but also the threat of violence from extremist groups.

    Relief and protection of at-risk communities are not possible without the support and alliance of regional and like-minded international civil society networks. Exchange among civil society networks across regions must also continue to come up with new ways of fighting systems of oppression.


    Civic space in Pakistan is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Rabia Mehmood through her Twitter account@Rabail26.

     

  • PERU: ‘Constitutional debate has taken on new relevance as a result of the protests’

    Rafael BarrioCIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Peru with Rafael Barrio de Mendoza, a researcher on processes of territorial transformation from Grupo Propuesta Ciudadana, a consortium of 10 civil society organisations with a presence in 16 regions of Peru. Propuesta Ciudadana seeks to contribute to the formulation of policy proposals for an inclusive state and the adequate management of public resources. It promotes a vision of territorial governance that starts with the identification of and respect for diversity and in which democratic development is a key component.

    What triggered the protests that broke out in Peru in November 2020?

    The immediate cause was the decision by a parliamentary majority to force out President Martín Vizcarra, using a mechanism that had been scarcely used in the past and whose content and process involve a wide margin of discretion. The publication of accusations against Vizcarra was carried out in a sequence that proved to be planned, and a feeling prevailed that they were instrumentalised by the so-called ‘vacating coalition’. Although there is some controversy regarding the quality of the evidence brought forward about the crimes Vizcarra is accused of, allegedly committed during his term as governor of the Moquegua region five years ago, a consensus formed in public opinion that these accusations could have been credibly pursued after the end of his presidential term, given that general elections had already been called for April 2021.

    But from a more structural point of view, the political crisis was the expression of the maturing of a crisis of political representation, which made it apparent that there were few organic links between politicians and citizens’ sensibilities and that we have a precarious and cartelised system of political representation, in which a myriad of illegal, informal and oligopolistic interests have resisted successive generations of reforms – educational, judicial, fiscal and political, among others – aimed at regulating them. Revelations of corruption involving much of the political establishment, including the Lava Jato/Odebrecht case and the White Collars case, which uncovered a widespread network of corruption within the judicial system, resulted in a consensus that the management of public affairs had irremediably deteriorated. At the same time, the relative effectiveness of the fiscal measures taken against the political leaders involved in these cases fuelled the prospect of a cleansing of the political class and the possibility of cultivating a transition to a better system of representation. To a certain extent, the populist link that Vizcarra established with this sensitivity – sealed with the constitutional dissolution of the previous Congress, in which former President Alberto Fujimori’s party had a majority – was the factor that sustained his government, which lacked parliamentary, business, media, or trade union support. Vizcarra’s removal was experienced as the comeback of a constellation of interests that had experienced a setback as a consequence of prosecutors’ work and recent education, political and judicial reforms.

    How would you describe the institutional conflict that resulted in the removal and replacement of the president?

    Institutional conflict arose due to the precarious character of a political system that included a new Congress with multiple caucuses but none of them of the president’s party and a president who enjoyed popular support but lacked institutional backing, and whose legitimacy was therefore sustained on his versatile management of public debate through a combination of political gestures, the recruitment of competent technicians in key positions and a calculated exercise of antagonism with Congress on key issues such as education, political and judicial reforms.

    The majority coalition in Congress broadly took up the agenda and represented the interests of the former so-called ‘Fujiaprist’ majority – described in reference to the tacit alliance between the Aprista party and the political movement founded by former President Fujimori – on top of which it added new populist demands that put at risk the budgetary and macroeconomic management that enjoyed technocratic consensus. In this context, certain people who had survived the dissolution of the previous Congress managed to reposition themselves in the new one and conduct, alongside some media outlets, a campaign seeking to undermine Vizcarra’s popularity by levelling accusations of corruption in unclear cases. These were the dynamics that fed the institutional conflict.

    For its part, civil society provided a unified response to the president’s removal and the new regime that resulted from it. Their response ranged from expressing concern and demanding accountability to openly condemning the establishment of the new administration. The mass protests and repression they faced fuelled this shift in most of civil society. Many civil society organisations played an active role in framing the conflict, producing a narrative for international audiences and putting pressure on the state actors with whom they interact.

    Who mobilised, and what did they demand?

    At first, demonstrators protested against the removal of President Vizcarra and against the inauguration of the president of Congress, Manuel Merino, as the new president. A subsequent survey by Ipsos showed that just over three quarters of the population agreed with the protest against President Vizcarra’s removal and that at least two million people mobilised in one way or another or took an active part in the protests.

    The demonstrations were led mostly by young people, between 16 and 30 years old, who did most of the organising and produced the protest’s repertoires and tactics. The generalised mood of weariness was embodied by the so-called ‘bicentennial generation’, born after the end of the Fujimori regime, who are digital natives and, for the most part, disaffected with conventional politics. This is also a mesocratic generation – both in the traditional segments of the middle class and in the popular sectors – that is embedded in virtual communities mediated by digital platforms. This partly explains the speed with which organisational forms emerged that were efficient enough to produce repertoires, coordinate actions, document protests and shift public opinion. The mediation of social media and the use of micro money transfer applications led to a decentralised organisation of the protests, with multiple demonstrations taking place in different locations, a variety of converging calls and a diversity of repertoires and channels for the rapid transfer of resources.

    The youth-led mobilisation was fed by a middle class willing to assume the cost of demonstrating. Around this nucleus coalesced, both sociologically and territorially, other segments of the population, more or less used to conventional protest strategies or simply distant from all public participation.

    The protests began on 9 November, followed by daily demonstrations, and reached their peak on 14 November, when the Second National March took place. The so-called 14N mass mobilisation was fuelled by the sudden awakening of a fed-up feeling that ran through society and was particularly intense among young people. Hence its exceptional character in terms of its scope, magnitude, level of organisation and the rapid adoption of a non-partisan citizen identity, which could only be partly explained by the existing support for Vizcarra, as it far exceeded it.

    14N culminated with the death of two young protesters who were hit by lead bullets. Merino had taken over on 10 November and formed a radically conservative government. The nature of his cabinet quickly revealed itself through the authorisation of severe repression of the protest, particularly in the capital, Lima. After the first days of police violence, the president of the Council of Ministers congratulated and guaranteed protection to the police squads involved. The deaths that took place on 14N resulted in overwhelming citizen pressure, triggering a cascade of disaffection among the few political supporters sustaining the regime. As a result, by midday on 15 November Merino had resigned.

    The space generated by the mobilisation was populated by a number of heterogeneous demands, ranging from the reinstatement of Vizcarra to the demand for constitutional change to pave the way out of neoliberalism, including citizen-based proposals focused on the defence of democracy, the continuity of reforms, the injustice of the repression, and the insensitivity of the political class regarding the pandemic health emergency. Ferment for these demands continues to exist and it remains to be seen how they end up taking shape in the electoral scenario of 2021.

     

    How did these protests differ from others in the past? Were there any changes related to the context of the pandemic?

    In previous urban mobilisations, the coordination mechanisms provided by social media had already been tested, but these demonstrations had been led by conventional groups, such as social movements, political parties and trade unions. On this occasion, new activist groups were formed, including to deactivate teargas projectiles and to provide medical relief, which are similar to mobilisation techniques tested in other scenarios, such as the Hong Kong protests and the Black Lives Matter protests in the USA. This speaks of the emergence of global protest learning spaces.

    In part, it was the health emergency that conditioned the composition of the protests, which were mostly made up of young people, while also encouraging the dissemination of new repertoires, such as ‘cacerolazos’ (pot banging), ‘bocinazos’ (horn blowing) and digital activism among those more reluctant to take to the streets. At the same time, the massive character of the protests can be explained by the fact that health indicators at the time suggested the end of the first wave of COVID-19 infections, and by the fact that the Black Lives Matter marches had not been linked to any relevant outbreaks, which encouraged a sense of safety among protesters.

    Why did protesters demand constitutional reform, and what kind of constitutional reform do they want?

    Proposals of constitutional change were among the demands of the mobilisation, but they were not its main demands. They did however gain new impetus in public debate. The history of these demands can be traced in two ways. Constitutional change through a constituent assembly has been one of the key demands of the left since the end of the Fujimori regime, which ruled from 1990 to 2001. Right after its fall, a congress was convened with a constituent mandate, but it was unable to produce a new constitution; since then this aspiration has come to live in the progressive camp, while it has lost popularity among more moderate and right-wing groups. The left often presents the mythical 1979 Constitution as an alternative, proposes new texts inspired by the Bolivian and Ecuadorian processes, and points to the illegitimate character of the current constitution, born after a coup d’état. The sustained economic growth of the post-Fujimori decades and a number of reforms of some constitutional mechanisms conferred legitimacy on the constitution, but many of the institutions and principles it enshrines have been rendered obsolete by the sociological and economic changes they helped bring about.

    The second source of the demand for constitutional change is more organic and follows the realisation of the limits of the market model, apparent above all in the persistent lack of social protection, precarious and informal work and abuses by oligopoly interests in service provision, as well as in the crisis of the system of political representation. Vizcarra inaugurated a reformist stance in judicial and political matters, as well in the legal frameworks governing extractive industries and the pension system. He also continued with education reform. His reformist spirit – viewed by moderate groups as a path to a ‘responsible’ transition – was attacked by the political forces representing the sectors that had been affected by the reforms, creating a space in which reform aspirations can be promoted in the language of constitutional change.

    Even so, this debate has taken on new relevance as a result of the 14N protests. However, the terms of the conversation and the content of the most significant changes are not yet clear, and neither is the existence of mature political actors capable of interpreting and implementing them. Danger lies in the possibility that, in a context of high uncertainty, the process may end up being defined by those whose motivations are foreign to the spirit of change.

    Civic space in Peru is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Propuesta Ciudadana through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@prop_ciudadana and@BarrioZevallos on Twitter.

     

     

  • PERU: ‘It is necessary to restore trust in elections’

    CIVICUS speaks with Iván Lanegra, secretary general of Transparency Civil Association (Asociación Civil Transparencia), about Peru’s recent presidential elections and the state of its democracy. Transparency is an independent civil society organisation that works to improve the quality of democracy and political representation by facilitating dialogue between political, governmental and civil society actors, implementing education and capacity-building programmes for citizen and political leadership, developing public policy proposals and observing electoral processes.

    Ivan Lanegra

    What was different and what was at stake in this election?

    The recent general election was embedded in several political and social processes. First, it took place at the end of a very politically unstable five-year period, in which we had four presidents – Pedro Kuczynski, Martín Vizcarra, Manuel Merino and Francisco Sagasti – and Congress was constitutionally dissolved. At the same time, the economy was no longer growing as much, and social discontent began to increase. In this context, corruption scandals undermined the credibility of political parties. This was compounded by the socio-economic impact of the pandemic, which fuelled greater demands for redistribution.

    As a result of all these processes, there was an atomisation of citizens’ preferences. The effects of this situation translated into high fragmentation of the vote in the parliamentary elections of January 2020 and, again, in the first round of the presidential election, held in April 2021, in which the two candidates who came out on top, and therefore went on to the second round, jointly received barely 33 per cent of the vote. There are 10 different political parties represented in our 130-seat Congress.

    In the second electoral round, the victory of Pedro Castillo, of the left-wing Perú Libre (Free Peru) party over Keiko Fujimori, of the right-wing Fuerza Popular (Popular Force), showed the importance of the demands for change and rejection of conventional politics that grew in recent years.

    However, the announcement of the official results was severely delayed, which created a climate of great uncertainty. In a context of high polarisation, there was an exponential increase in the number of appeals against the election results: normally, fewer than a dozen are filed, but on this occasion there were more than a thousand, none of which were considered well-founded. These appeals were used instrumentally: unfounded allegations of fraud were used to prolong the process as much as possible and to try to prevent the announcement of the results. While this attempt was unsuccessful, it delayed the transfer of power and increased distrust of politics and electoral institutions.

    Why did many people not vote?

    The rate of absenteeism in the first electoral round was almost 30 per cent, somewhat higher than in the 2020 legislative elections, when it reached 26 per cent; however, it dropped to less than 24 per cent in the runoff election. It is important to bear in mind that the first round of election took place when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its highest point in Peru. In other countries, such as Chile, it was not even possible to hold a vote due to the health emergency, but the elections took place normally in Peru. In fact, what is remarkable is that absenteeism wasn’t any higher.

    What role did Transparency play in relation to the electoral process?

    In the run-up to the election, as part of the #DecideBien (#ChooseWell) campaign, Transparency disseminated systematic information about the parties, their candidates and their proposals, so that citizens could assess their options. We broke down the parties’ policy programmes so that each person could learn about and compare the proposals of each candidate on the issues that interested them, and vote on the basis on that knowledge.

    In addition, we invited citizens to register with the National Transparency Volunteer Network to become election observers. From our perspective, election observation consists of monitoring, providing guidance and bearing witness to the events that take place during election day, as well as educating citizens about electoral conduct and rules.

    With this network of volunteers, Transparency observed the election process and from the outset we noted that the electoral process had been conducted normally, with only the kind of minor incidents that tend to occur in all elections, but which do not affect the results.

    In view of the unfounded allegations that were made in an attempt to discredit the process, we also worked to counter electoral disinformation. The phenomenon of disinformation on social media, particularly after the runoff election, was much stronger than in previous elections, and the electoral authorities themselves had to set up teams dedicated almost exclusively to debunking ‘fake news’. The climate of polarisation surely contributed to increasing the impact of disinformation.

    What political challenges lie ahead in the aftermath of the election?

    The main challenges are how to reduce distrust in the state, how to address dissatisfaction with democracy and how to improve political representation. Although compared to these challenges, political polarisation, which was exacerbated in the electoral context, is less of a concern, it must also be considered. While the most radicalised sectors continue to fuel polarisation, they are in the minority. They managed to polarise the election because they were able to get through to the second round despite having received a low percentage of the vote, but after the election, the majority of citizens are far from the extremes. However, it is important to bear in mind that distrust, dissatisfaction and the feeling of lack of representation are elements that those who seek to exploit polarisation can use to their advantage.

    It is necessary to restore trust in elections. To this end, we must continue to educate and inform citizens about the rules of elections, politics and democracy. We must also improve the mechanisms available to us for combatting disinformation. It is also necessary to move electoral reforms forward, in order to create incentives for the strengthening of political parties, as well as to improve the quality of political representation.

    Civic space in Peru is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Transparency Civil Association through itswebsite or itsFacebook,Instagram andTik Tok pages, and follow@actransparencia and@ilanegra on Twitter.

     

     

  • PHILIPPINES: ‘We fear the democracy those before us fought so hard for will be erased’

    CIVICUS speaks about the recent presidential election in the Philippines with Marinel Ubaldo, a young climate activist, co-founder of the Youth Leaders for Environmental Action Federation and Advocacy Officer for Ecological Justice and Youth Engagement of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines (LLS).

    Founded by Catholic lay people, LLS began in 2018 as an interfaith movement calling on Filipino financial institutions to divest from coal-related operations and other environmentally harmful activities. It aims to empower people to adopt lifestyles and attitudes that match the urgent need to care for the planet. It promotes sustainable development and seeks to tackle the climate crisis through collective action.

    Marinel Ubaldo

    From your perspective, what was at stake in the 9 May presidential election?

    The 2022 election fell within the crucial window for climate justice. As stated in the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we need to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius or we will suffer terrible consequences, such as a rise in sea levels that will submerge much of the currently populated land, including the Philippines. Upcoming leaders will serve for the next six years –and possibly beyond. They have the immense responsibility of putting a climate change mitigation system in place for our country and urging more countries to do the same.

    As shown by Super Typhoon Rai that hit the Philippines in December 2021, climate change affects all of us. Whole communities lost their loved ones and their homes. Young people will reap the fruits, or pay the consequences, for whatever our incoming leaders do in response to this crisis. This is why climate anxiety is so prevalent among young people.

    How did young people mobilise around this election?

    Young people campaigned house to house. We also went to grassroots communities to educate voters on how to vote wisely. Alongside other organisations that form the Green Thumb Coalition, our organisation produced a Green Scorecard and we used our social media platforms to promote the ‘green’ candidate.

    One of the biggest youth initiatives around the elections was ‘LOVE, 52’, a campaign aimed at empowering young people and helping them engage with candidates and make their voices heard in demand of a green, just, and loveable future through better governance. We wanted to shift the focus from candidates’ personality and patronage politics to a debate on fundamental issues, and to help young people move traditional powerholders towards a people-centred style of policymaking.

    We called this initiative ‘LOVE, 52’ in reference to the fact that young people – people under 40 – comprise 52 per cent of the Philippines’ voting population. We sought to appeal to younger voters’ emotions, and our central theme was love because a frequent response to the question ‘why vote?’ is to protect what we love: our families, our country, and our environment. The main element of this campaign was a ‘love letter’ drafted by several youth organisations and addressed to the country. It contained young people’s calls to incoming leaders, including those of prioritising environmental and social issues, coming up with a coherent plan to address the climate crisis, and supporting a vibrant democracy that will enable climate and environmental justice. We gathered all the love letters people wrote, put them in one envelope, and delivered them physically to the presidential candidates’ headquarters.

    What are the implications of the election results for civil society and civic freedoms?

    The results of these elections will have a lot of implications for the Filipino people. They will have a direct impact on civil society and our freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly.

    The winning candidate, senator Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr., the son and namesake of a former dictator, has said that he will include his family in his administration. Just today, I saw the new president’s spokesperson on the news saying Marcos will make his own appointments, bringing in the people he trusts. I think he will really try to control the government with people who follow him unconditionally. He will put such people in all the positions available, so everyone will tell him what he wants to hear and no one will disagree with him. I think this is the scariest part of it all.

    I fear in a few months or years we will be living under a dictatorship. Marcos may even be able to stay in power for as long as he wants. After trying to reach power for so long, he has finally won, and he won’t let go of power easily.

    It’s very scary because the human rights violations that happened during his father’s dictatorship are not even settled yet. More human rights violations are likely to happen. It’s a fact that the Filipino people won’t be allowed to raise their voices; if they do so, they may risk being killed. This is what happened under martial law during Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship.

    This will definitely affect civil society. It will be very difficult for humanitarian workers to respond to any crisis since Marcos will likely aspire to micro-manage everything. We fear the democracy those before us fought so hard for will be erased.

    Regarding the specifics of policymaking, we don’t really know what the plan is. Marcos campaigned on vague promises of national unity and implied that all problems would be solved if people unite behind his leadership. Needless to say, he never mentioned any policy to tackle climate change and the environmental crisis.

    Against all signals, I keep hoping the new administration will be receptive to people’s demands. I really hope our new president listens to the cries of the people. Our leaders must reach out to communities and listen to our issues. I doubt Bongbong Marcos is capable of doing that, but one can only hope.

    What support does Filipino civil society need from international civil society and the international community?

    We need to ensure the international community sends out a consistent message and stands by our side when oppression starts. We also need them to be ready to rescue Filipinos if their safety is at risk. We activists fear for our lives. We have doubts about how receptive and accepting the new administration will be toward civil society. 

    Today is a gloomy day in the Philippines. We did our best to campaign for truth, facts, and hope for the Philippines. Vice President Leni Robredo campaigned for public sector transparency and vowed to lead a government that cares for the people and bolsters the medical system. If she had won the elections, she would have been the third woman to lead the Philippines after Cory Aquino and Macapagal Arroyo.

    Leni’s loss is the loss of the Philippines, not just hers. There are still too many people in the Philippines who believe Marcos’s lies. I don’t blame the masses for believing his lies; they are victims of decades of disinformation. Our system sadly enables disinformation. This is something that needs to be urgently tackled, but the next administration will likely benefit from it so it will hardly do what’s needed.

    We now fear every day for our lives and for the future of our country.

    Civic space inthe Philippinesis rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Living Laudato Si’ Philippines through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@LaudatoSiPH on Twitter and@laudatosiph on Instagram

     

  • Repression in Paradise: Assault on fundamental freedoms in the Maldives

    The Maldives, an archipelago of islands in the Indian Ocean, was thrown into a political crisis on 1 February 2018 when the country's Supreme Court ordered the release and retrial of a group of opposition politicians, including exiled former president Mohamed Nasheed. President Yameen Abdul Gayoom refused to comply with the ruling, leading to mass protests in the capital, Malé.In response, the President declared a state of emergency, provided the security forces with sweeping powers and suspended constitutional rights. He also removed and arrested two Supreme Court judges.

     

  • RUSSIA: ‘The shutdown of media sources threatens to create information vacuum for Russians’

    Natalia MalyshevaCIVICUS speaks about anti-war protests in Russia and the government’s violations of digital rights with Natalia Malysheva, co-founder and press secretary of Roskomsvoboda.

    Roskomsvoboda is a civil society organisation (CSO) that works to defend people’s digital rights. Established in 2012, it promotes the freedom of information and advocates against censorship. It is currently working to ensure people receive accurate information about the war and offering assistance to those who have been detained.

    How significant are the ongoing anti-war protests in Russia?

    The protests are small. In the first days of the so-called ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, many people came out to take part in spontaneous rallies for peace in all major cities of Russia. Human rights CSOs have reported that more than 15,000 people have been detained so far for speaking out against the war. But now protests typically consist of small groups of people in multiple locations across the country.

    The new law that prohibits and criminalises the dissemination of ‘fake news’ about the Russian military action and the expression of support for ‘anti-Russian sanctions’ has had a strong impact on how people organise, and on whether they go out to protest, because it has installed fear throughout society.

    People have been arrested merely for using the words ‘war’ and ‘peace’ in the context of protests, and even for using asterisks instead of letters on their signs – because the government knows that if you protest with a blank sign or a sign full of asterisks, what you are trying to say is ‘no to war’. People who advocate against the war on social media are also often at risk of being arrested.

    There are fewer and fewer people who are willing to take part in an uncoordinated rally and get arrested for several days, because most of them have families and jobs they wish to protect. Many people who fear for their lives are leaving the country for their safety. Others simply do not see any prospects in a continuing struggle. Moving forward, we shouldn’t expect mass protests to arise in Russia.

    Do you think protests can make any difference?

    Right now it is clear that the Russian government does not intend to have a dialogue with the part of society that does not support its so-called ‘military operation’ in Ukraine. This is unfortunately a relatively small segment of society and its demands are overlooked.

    Although people continue to go out to protests and some get arrested in the process, in my opinion this will not change the course of the events that are currently taking place. The authorities won’t listen to protesters. Protesting will perhaps start making more sense when – or if – most Russians begin to understand what is really happening.

    What is Roskomsvoboda focusing on?

    Roskomsvoboda is a CSO that supports open self-regulatory networks and the protection of digital rights of internet users. It seeks to counter online censorship and expand the opportunities brought by digital technologies.

    For 10 years, Roskomsvoboda has constantly monitored the activities of government agencies. We publish a register of blocked sites and raise awareness of online abuse, leakages of personal data and the persecution of citizens for their social media statements. We conduct extensive public campaigns and events aimed at informing citizens about the violation of their digital rights, initiating public discussion and bringing people together so they can fight for their rights. Our lawyers defend those who are prosecuted for their online statements or activities, represent the interests of users and site owners in court and participate in the development of proposals for changing legislation.

    In the past few days, against the backdrop of an information war and a growing social crisis, we have focused more on helping people get reliable information about what is happening. We have published pieces about new laws that have been adopted to introduce censorship and analysed how they will affect people and their right to speak up. Our lawyers continue to provide targeted legal assistance to those who are being prosecuted for speaking out online, defending people in courts.

    The closure of some news outlets and social media platforms is affecting the kind of information people receive. State media outlets provide information that only reflects events from the government’s perspective and disseminate a lot of propaganda. The shutdown of leading media sources threatens to create an information vacuum for Russians, which won’t contribute to the goal of achieving peace.

    Restrictions on access to information and censorship have already significantly reduced people’s ability to protest. Even publishing an online call for a peace rally can result in criminal punishment.

    We recently issued a statement calling on the world’s leading internet and IT companies and initiatives not to indiscriminately impose mass sanctions and not to punish ordinary people in Russia, many of whom are already in a vulnerable position. We have translated our appeal into several languages and are asking everyone to help disseminate it.

    What are the dangers of disinformation in the context of the current crisis?

    The biggest risk of disinformation is that of disconnecting Russia from the global information space.

    Russian authorities have blocked the world’s largest media outlets and social media. Many western companies have stopped operating in Russia, making it even more closed for international viewers. This prevents people from getting the truth about what is happening; it also destroys the businesses and careers of many people who have worked in partnership with Western countries for many years.

    The current closure of businesses has left many people without vital resources. People are not only affected by oppression from the Russian government but must also deal with the potential loss of their jobs and sources of income. With such actions, western countries only risk Russia shutting down completely from the outside world, paving the way for the rise of a ‘sovereign internet’ – an internet thoroughly controlled by the government.

    How can the international community best support Russian civil society?

    The international community can help by bringing our message to the widest possible audience. On behalf of Russian internet users, Roskomsvoboda urges technology companies located in the jurisdictions of the USA, the European Union and other countries not to massively disable the accounts of Russian users. They should not restrict their access to information and means of communication.

    Digital discrimination based on nationality would reduce the ability of Russians to gain access to reliable information, as well as to conduct honest work, study and research activities. So we ask you to please distribute our statement far and wide.

    We also started a petition asking the world’s virtual private network (VPN) services to help ensure that Russian users have free access to their services during these difficult times. This is necessary to protect users’ basic rights to privacy, the secrecy of communication and their ability to receive and disseminate information freely. Access to information is a basic human right enshrined in various international agreements. In critical situations, it is more important than ever.

    Civic space in Russiais rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. Russia is currently on theCIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
    Get in touch with Roskomsvoboda through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@RuBlackListNET on Twitter.

     

  • RUSSIA: ‘These protests are key to the preservation of Russian civil society’

    Maria KuznetsovaCIVICUS speaks about the ongoing anti-war protests in Russia and the repressive government response with OVD-Info’s spokesperson Maria Kuznetsova.

    OVD-Info is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) that aims to promote and protect human rights – and specifically the freedom of peaceful assembly – in Russia. It monitors protests and their repression and assists detained protesters through legal aid, online consultations, and bringing them food and water while in detention.

    How big are the ongoing anti-war protests in Russia?

    The protests were massive in the first two weeks of the war – we recorded protest-related arrests in at least 159 cities. Of course, the biggest protests were those taking place in major developed cities, basically Moscow and St. Petersburg.

    People came out against the war for moral reasons, because they could not look at the horror of what was happening in Ukraine and not react: mass bombings, killings of civilians, violence.

    Protesters are mostly people under 40 years old – because they are the ones who, thanks to the internet, get an accurate picture of what is happening, in contrast to the narrative that is pushed by censored state TV. Their demands to end the war are simultaneously, of course, demands to overthrow Putin. Because one is impossible without the other.

    My opinion is that due to the deteriorating economic situation, another – quite different – wave of protests may be expected soon. This may start among the poorer sections of the population who have lost income and jobs, and among doctors and patients, who are already experiencing the consequences of shortages of life-saving medicines due to sanctions.

    Do you think repression has dissuaded people from protesting in bigger numbers?

    At the height of the protests, on 5 March, more than 5,500 people were detained in one day. Since the beginning of the war, nearly 15,000 people have been detained at anti-war protests. The police are very harshly suppressing the protests – for example, on Sunday 20 March in Moscow, virtually all protesters were detained, and many of them were arrested for five to 30 days.

    In addition, 39 criminal cases have already been opened due to statements and protests against the war; some of the defendants are already in jail. All of this scares away potential protesters. They understand that they can get a prison sentence even for participating in a peaceful rally, and it is obvious that fewer people are coming out now. However, protest continues under different forms: people sign open letters, write on social media, quit their jobs. We have even seen several high-profile dismissals of journalists and editors from federal media channels.

    Those who still venture out to protest are being assisted by several human rights organisations, including OVD-Info. We send our lawyers to police stations where protesters are held. When there are not enough lawyers or we do not have a lawyer in a given city, we provide online consultations. We accompany the defendants to court. In addition, there is an extensive network of volunteers who also come to police stations to bring detainees water and food so that they do not go hungry all night after they are detained.

    Do you think the protests will lead to meaningful change?

    I don’t think there is a chance that these protests will influence the politics of the current regime, and as a human rights project, rather than a political one, OVD-Info is not in a position to assess the prospects for regime change. What we know for sure is that the only possible path to peace in Europe is having a free Russia that protects human rights. We do not know when our country will turn that way.

    Still, these protests are key to the preservation and future development of Russian civil society. By taking part in them, those who oppose the war will gain invaluable self-organisation skills and acquire the moral right to play a prominent role when the time comes to build a new Russia.

    How have media restrictions imposed by the government affected the protests, and civil society work more generally?

    In my opinion, what we are witnessing in Russia is the establishment of military censorship. Even calling the events in Ukraine a war is prohibited – this is punishable by an administrative fine, and in case of repeated violations it becomes a criminal case, which can result in up to five years in prison. A new crime has been included in the Criminal Code: that of public disseminating knowingly false information about the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. You can get up to 15 years in prison if you’re accused of doing that.

    The websites of almost all independent organisations have been blocked in Russia since the beginning of the war. Due to anti-war remarks, its founders were forced to shut down Echo of Moscow, a radio station. The online media Znak.com also closed due to pressures. Independent TV channel Dozhd left Russia and temporarily interrupted its broadcasts, which were viewed by millions. Almost all independent media outlets were forced to leave Russia. In addition, the government blocked Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, because they realised they were unable to effectively impose censorship on social media.

    At the moment, military censorship makes it tough to continue any anti-war and independent civilian activity, because any statement or protest can result in a prison term. But people continue to protest regardless, and many celebrities are speaking out publicly. We have seen employees of propaganda channels getting fired, which suggests that people are so enraged by what is happening that they are willing to fight back despite the risks.

    How have the sanctions affected your work?

    I don’t have a clear answer just yet. It seems to me that so far sanctions have not affected our work so much, but the situation can always quickly deteriorate. In fact, OVD-Info has closed down all Russian donations, while international donations continue to be safe. 

    For the time being, it is the shutdown of many social media platforms that has made our work much more complex: it is increasingly difficult for us to convey information to people, educate them on legal issues and provide them with legal assistance. It will be especially difficult for us if Telegram is blocked in Russia, because it is now our primary platform for communicating with detainees.

    How can the international community help independent CSOs and human rights activists in Russia?

    I think the international community should be more careful with sanctions, which should be targeted. I think that the idea of collective responsibility is wrong – in Russia, it is a concept reminiscent of Stalin’s mass deportations of whole peoples, such as the Crimean Tatars, to pay for some individuals’ cooperation with the Third Reich.

    From a pragmatic rather than an ethical point of view, it must be noted that many sanctions that have been imposed are having negative side effects – they are harming the most progressive part of society that opposes the war, preventing it from receiving information and obstructing the work of the last independent media. For example, Mailchimp – a USA-based platform and email marketing service that is used to create and distribute email marketing campaigns – has blocked all its clients from Russia.

    It is also essential to understand that the Russians and Belarusians that are now leaving their countries and arriving in Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and other parts of Europe are mostly opposition activists and independent journalists who face jail time in their homeland. But because they are Russians and Belarusians, they are facing massive discrimination. However, these activists and journalists are not responsible for their government’s actions – they are in fact the only hope that their countries will change, so it is essential to help them instead of discriminating against them as if they were the aggressors’. It is necessary to understand that not all Russians and Belarusians support the war in Ukraine.

    Civic space in Russiais rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. Russia is currently on theCIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
    Get in touch with OVD-Info through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@ovdinfo on Twitter.

     

     

  • South Africa celebrates Human Rights Day but major challenges remain

    As South Africa commemorates Human Rights Day tomorrow, 21 March 2018, it is an opportunity for the government now led by President Cyril Ramaphosa to situate human rights at the centre of all actions of the government in line with the constitution and address recent human rights violations.

     

  • South African NGO scores legal victory in limiting the influence of ‘big money’ on democracy

    A South African NGO My Vote Counts recently won a court case in which it asked that political parties must be compelled to publicly reveal their sources of funds. CIVICUS speaks to Elizabeth Biney, a researcher with My Vote Counts on why they had taken this case and why this is an important victory for South Africa’s democracy

    Q: Why is it important for political parties to reveal sources of private funding?

    My Vote Counts believe that access to the private funding information of political parties is important and reasonably required for the effective exercise of political rights enshrined in the South African Constitution — namely, the right to vote and to make political choices. Political parties in South Africa occupy a unique and influential role in our constitutional democracy. Under our current electoral system, that is, a list system of proportional representation, only political parties determine which persons become members of the legislature as well as the national and provincial executives. These people then go on to shape public policies and the laws of the country. Given their pivotal role in the democratic functioning of the country, we cannot disassociate their activities from their funding sources.

    There is also the argument to be made in advocating for the disclosure of private funding information as a deterrent to corrupt activities. Transparency in the funding of political parties is good for our democracy, broadly speaking.

    Mandatory disclosures of private funding also allow us to detect and prevent possible cases of corruption and to control the influence of money in our politics. It is reasonable to anticipate that private political contributions can influence the manner in which political parties function. For instance, a political party may take a particular policy position in order to satisfy the expectations of substantial donors, at the expense of the majority that voted for it in an election. Secret funding of political parties creates the scope for and facilitates corruption.

    Therefore, the disclosure of this kind of information is not only necessary to preempt future likely behavior of parties, it gives more depth and value to the right to vote. Having all the correct information available to the citizenry before they make a political choice means people are making informed choices — a voter is knowingly choosing a party and its principles and programmes. Having ratified three anti-corruption international agreements, including the United Nations Convention against Corruption, the South African government already acknowledges the relationship between political donations and corruption. The obvious next step is to put appropriate preventative mechanisms in place to guard against political corruption. One such measure is to have formal legislation or regulation that compels parties to publicly and proactively disclose their private funding information.

    Q: What are the arguments by those parties who are against revealing funding sources?

    Under the South African Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), access to information can be refused for a number of reasons, all of which seemingly pivot on the “right to privacy”. For example, a request for information can be refused if the information contains financial, commercial or technical information of a third party. Another problem with PAIA is when the disclosure of the information “would constitute an action for breach of a duty of confidence owed to a third party in terms of an agreement”. This is particularly concerning because it essentially allows parties to enter into confidential agreements with donors in order to avoid disclosing private funding information. In any case, political parties may rely on any of these provisions to deny access to their private funding information.

    Some reasonable arguments have been advanced by smaller parties that warrant consideration. Most smaller parties are concerned about the possible intimidation of their funders and subsequently the loss of financial support to compete effectively with the ruling party.

    Undoubtedly the effects of funders withdrawing donations to opposition parties for fear of reprisals from a governing party may be a reasonable concern. However, this should be addressed through existing appropriate legislation. In any case, parties cannot sustain this argument since the potential threat is criminal in nature and would warrant legal action.

    However, the prevailing contention (mostly by the major opposition party) is that of the right to privacy versus disclosures.  For them, a disclosure regime will not only limit the rights of donors to privacy and to express their political support in secret; it limits the privacy of political parties themselves. We find this elevation of the right to privacy over the right of access to information very problematic. Privacy, like any right in the Bill of Rights, is not absolute and therefore can be reasonably attenuated. Our Constitutional Court has said as much when it affirmed that the right to privacy exists on a continuum — so the more public the space, the more it can be justifiably limited. The two rights are equally important so they need to be weighted carefully to ensure our democratic processes are responsive, accountable and transparent.

    Q: What are the next steps now that you have won the court case?
    The judgment will be referred to the Constitutional Court for confirmation, we will await that decision. In the meantime, we continue with our lobbying for legislative reform. The judgment was handed down after a parliamentary process had been initiated to review the current political financing landscape, with the intention of reforming it. So, there is now a parliamentary Ad Hoc Committee on the Funding of Political Parties investigating the challenges in our party financing regime. We have been engaging with them on some critical issues as well as monitoring the entire process.

    The Committee has produced a draft political party Bill and is accepting public comments on the Bill. We are in the process of making written and likely oral submissions on this draft Bill with the hope of improving it to meet both international best practices and constitutional standards.

    Q: In your opinion, what is the state of democracy in South Africa?
    This is never an easy question to answer and besides it can yield such diverse responses given its subjective nature. Personally, I think our democracy is under threat. The level of political impunity and sheer disregard for ethics and good governance, both politically and administratively is alarming. You only need to track the number of issues that civil society has taken the government and Parliament to court on to see that the protection of South Africans and our liberties are in the hands of civil society and the media.

    Despite the slippery slope that we find ourselves in, South Africa’s democracy will not fail just yet. We have a constitutional democracy which means that despite political and administrative attempts to circumvent our democratic rights, the Constitution is paramount and the role the judiciary in this regard cannot be under estimated. Also, South Africa has a vibrant civil society sector constantly fighting for change and we will need to work together for the broader constitutional goal of a free and democratic society.

    Q: What role can civil society play in South Africa to strengthen democracy?
    I think civil society is doing what it is intended to and all it can do at the present moment. We are constantly asking the difficult questions that the ordinary citizen may be too scared to ask. We are demanding accountability of our leaders and private businesses.

    Although government is trying to close down the dissenting spaces that we operate in, we are putting up a fight. Our democracy can only flourish if there are oversight bodies like civil society. You cannot underplay the significant role that public watchdogs play in ensuring accountability, fairness and transparency in democratic governance.

    For us specifically, our role is to ensure that a few financial backers do not corrupt our political system. We want to see our democracy be as participatory as possible, and so we need to limit the influence of big money.

     

  • SOUTH KOREA: ‘Achieving victory by our own hands'

    As part of our 2018 report on the theme ofreimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Gayoon Baek, South Korean civil society activist, co-representative of Jeju Dark Tours and former coordinator of People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, about what has changed for civil society following South Korea’s dramatic 2017 ‘Candlelight Revolution’, which led to the ousting of President Park Geun-hye, and what challenges South Korean civil society still faces.

    What do you think people learned from the Candlelight Revolution?

    For the last nine years when we had a conservative government, people felt that even though they protested over and over again, especially workers, nothing changed. For people who work in rights, we hadn’t had much experience of winning something.

    But from the experience of 2017 people realised that if they all stand up together something can really change. Many people now are aware that once they are gathered together on the streets they can actually change something. This feeling of having achieved victory by our own hands will teach people that if you want to have some changes, you have to do something. This is something we did as a democracy and something we achieved with our own hands. Experiencing this makes a lot of difference. I think this will bring changes in the future when we have social issues to act on.

    How have the changes in government impacted on South Korean civil society?

    Civil society has changed a lot. At the time of the protests, some of the public who were participating distrusted civil society organisations (CSOs): they thought that CSOs wanted to maintain the old style of protests, characterised by union groups shouting the same slogans. Instead, people were very creative, holding concerts, being artistic, with a different format from the standard kind of protests that activists usually held. CSOs created innovative ways to conduct a campaign and protest. The protests were a platform for people to voice their different needs from different perspectives.

    As civil society, it was easier for us to work together because we had a common goal. We had a lot of support from the public, including donations. They saw CSOs as fighting on their behalf.

    Government agencies changed their attitude after the election. The day after the election results were published government ministries contacted CSOs and wanted to have a meeting with us. Before they hadn’t wanted to talk to us or include us as a partner. So it was a positive, that they wanted to talk to civil society groups. Now we have more opportunities to be able to talk and negotiate with the government. But at the same time it shows we are dependent on who is in the administration. There is not systematic dialogue, so when we have a bad administration it will go backwards again.

    Now many former civil society members have joined the new president’s team. So now when it comes to advocacy and lobbying, we are having to do this with our former friends, which is difficult for both of us. So on the surface there are more opportunities, but when you go deeper, it can be more complicated. Their broad positions are similar to those of civil society, but when you go into details, and at the level of implementation, it’s quite different.

    But from the public’s point of view, because it seems quite similar, there’s now no need to support civil society. Some people have let their membership of CSOs lapse.

    South Korean CSOs depend on individual membership payments and donations, especially when they don’t get donor funding or funding from the state. This is how they’re able to sustain themselves. And now some people have seen that success has been achieved and they don’t want to donate any more. Also often people want to make a donation directly to the victims of human rights violations, but not to the organisations working for those victims. Many small organisations are really struggling now. Many activists are suffering from financial difficulties because of this.

    Many in civil society feel that all the momentum within civil society has dissipated since the Candlelight Revolution. Many people think our role is over somehow because we have a new government. There are also a lot of groups that are very supportive of the new president, and some of these are quite extreme. They feel invested in the new president, having helped bring him to power. And people say that at the beginning, you have to encourage the new president and government instead of criticising them. But civil society should play a watchdog role regardless of the administration.

    How would you evaluate the government’s progress so far, and what key challenges remain unaddressed?

    When we go to international forums such as the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council, other people have a high expectation now of how this government will act, because they know it was established through people power. So they think this government will do a better job than the previous government. But given these high expectations, from a civil society perspective the government’s progress on human rights so far is quite disappointing. Even though there is some progress, when it comes to acting on recommendations from the UN, not much has changed.

    The first big problem is the lack of effort to enact a comprehensive anti-discrimination act. This recommendation has been made over and over again. The UN Committee on Economic and Social Rights reviewed South Korea in 2017 and gave the government an 18-month deadline to come up with an action plan to implement an anti-discrimination act, but so far this has not happened. It is still a taboo to talk about LGBTI people and sexual minority issues in politics and politicians still use discriminatory speech.

    Second is its position on disarmament. We appreciate the government’s efforts to develop a good relationship with North Korea. Everyone is happy about that. Once we solve the problem with North Korea many human rights problems in South Korea will be solved as well. We have a draconian national security law that has been used to crack down on human rights defenders and violate the freedom of expression, under the name of having an enemy in North Korea.

    Yet at the same time, in 2017 the government still decided to deploy the USA’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system in Seongju, arguing that it was needed to deter attacks from North Korea. Even though the relationship with North Korea has become better, the government has not yet withdrawn the project. They also wanted to have a naval fleet at Gangjeong village, where the villagers have fought against the establishment of a naval base for more than 10 years. So it was hard to understand how the government could say it wanted to have a good relationship with North Korea on the one hand while at the same time seeking to expand its military capabilities on the other.

    Third is the refugee crisis happening recently on Jeju Island, when around 500 Yemeni refugees came into Korea. They applied for refugee status. But Korean society is not very open to other ethnicities. For example, when people come in from South-East Asia to live in the country, they are taught how to assimilate Korean habits, rather than us accept a different culture.

    In this case, within a few days there was a petition signed by 800,000 people against accepting the refugees. Instead of declaring that under international law it would accept the refugees, the government’s response was to say they would tighten the refugee screening process, verify who are the real refugees compared to the fake ones, and expand its patrol system. That is disappointing from a human rights perspective.

    The government has shown no ability to control hate speech and prevent extreme right-wing religious groups from organising. There are far-right evangelical groups protesting against proposals for an anti-discrimination act and they closely work with the conservative media. They are very organised and also lobby hard against LGBTI rights and refugee rights. CSOs working on human rights receive so many threatening calls from these groups.

    Another recent concerning example came following the mass dismissal of workers by the SsangYong Motor Co in 2009. After a 10-year dispute it has agreed to rehire those who were dismissed. But 30 ex-workers had committed suicide during this time. When in 2018 the workers tried to set up a memorial altar to their colleagues who had recently died, conservative groups organised a protest, using abusive language and singing abusive songs at people mourning the death of their colleagues. But the authorities did nothing.

    So when it comes to preventing and punishing hate speech, we don't have any system. This goes back to the lack of a comprehensive anti-discrimination act. It’s disappointing that the government is failing to protect the human rights of marginalised groups.

    In summary, on the one hand there are positives, but on the other there is still more to be done if this is to be called a government that is established with people power.

    What would you like to see the government doing more of?

    The government should be reminded that Koreans are able to impeach the president if they are not happy with the leadership of the government. The government is happy to be in power, but they may forget who they represent. They shouldn’t forget that they were able to gain their position only because people supported them. They should not only be having a dialogue with civil society but also thinking about the ways they can implement the human rights pledges they made during the protests and the election. That is one of the ways they can make themselves distinct from the previous administration.

    Finally, what is your message to international civil society in relation to South Korea?

    I don’t want international civil society to lose interest in South Korea because most of the activists detained under the previous regime have now been released and because the situation has improved, so now they feel they can pay their attention to another country where things are worse. It’s very easy for the situation to go backwards again.

    Civic space in South Korea is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

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